National Rifle Association suing Pittsburgh and Philadelphia over gun laws
January 14, 2015 11:29 PM
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Pennsylvania has long barred its municipalities from approving ordinances that regulate the ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of guns or ammunition.
By Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Let no one accuse the National Rifle Association of being slow on the draw: It is suing Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Lancaster, just days after a new state law allowed it to challenge local gun ordinances in court.
“These municipalities have known for years that their ordinances were illegal, but there were no consequences,” said Jonathan Goldstein, a Chester County attorney representing the NRA. “Now it’s about to get expensive.”
While state law has barred local officials from passing their own gun laws since 1974, many municipalities have rules that, for example, ban firearms from public property. But last year’s passage of Act 192 gave the NRA new firepower in overturning such measures.
The law, which went into effect Jan. 5, allows any Pennsylvanian eligible to own a gun, or a group with such a person as a member, to challenge any local gun ordinance in the state. If the suit is successful, the municipality must pay the plaintiff’s legal fees.
Mr. Goldstein said the complaint names a handful of ordinances. One prohibits carrying firearms in a vehicle or in person without a state permit to do so. Another prohibits discharging a firearm except at target ranges, or in cases permitted by state law. A third requires gun owners to report the loss or theft of firearms.
In a statement Wednesday, the NRA said “a patchwork of local gun-control ordinances creates confusion” for citizens and police. But Act 192 is itself the subject of a legal challenge now in Commonwealth Court joined by Pittsburgh, Lancaster and Philadelphia — the three municipalities the NRA is suing.
“The NRA are bullies, and they don’t like to be challenged,” said Shira Goodman, executive director of gun-control advocacy group CeaseFirePA. The lawsuit “is a way to punish and strike back.”
“The largest cities [are] the ones that take these actions, and they are the ones who receive these actions,” responded Mr. Goldstein of Berwyn, Pa. “If we get these three municipalities to yield, it will convince others to do the right thing.”
It’s unclear how the NRA lawsuits would be affected by the challenge to the law that made them possible. Bruce Ledewitz, Duquesne University law professor, said a judge could put the NRA’s case on hold until Act 192’s validity is decided by a higher court. Optionally, he said, a judge might reason that “if the legislature gave people rights against the government, you should allow those rights to be exercised.”
While the city couldn’t comment directly on the lawsuit, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told reporters, “We will not be deterred, and we will keep our lawsuit going” against Act 192.
“We’re not taking away anyone’s right to own a gun,” he added. “What we’re saying is when a gun is lost or stolen, you’ve got to report it.”
Still, it’s unclear what impact such laws have had. The city has never charged anyone under the lost-and-stolen law. Spokesman Tim McNulty couldn’t provide information about whether anyone has been charged under the other ordinances at issue.
But Mr. Goldstein said that merely “the threat of being charged for exercising a lawful right is too much to take.”
Others seem to agree. Another gun-rights organization, U.S. Law Shield, sued the city of Harrisburg on Tuesday, while Kim Stolfer, founder of Firearm Owners Against Crime, said his group had sent letters warning other communities of potential legal action. He said 22 have responded either by saying they’d rescinded their ordinances or needed time to do so. But as many as 300 municipalities may have ordinances subject to challenge, he said.
“We don’t want to go to court,” Mr. Stolfer said. “We want them to do the right thing. But some of them aren’t.”
Mr. Goldstein also wouldn’t rule out future NRA suits against other Pennsylvania communities.
“I haven’t been given direction either way,” he said. “But it’s very tempting.”
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