Lost-gun ordinances usually fire blanks
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Lose a gun in Cleveland and fail to report it to police and you could face a $250 fine and 30 days in jail. But in the 12 years that ordinance has been on Cleveland's books, only two people have been taken to court for failing to report a lost or stolen gun.
That experience, and those of other cities, suggests that Pittsburgh's proposed ordinance on reporting lost or stolen guns and others cropping up all over the state and nation warrant neither the fear they are engendering in foes, nor the hope they inspire in advocates.
The target for anti-violence advocates is the so-called straw purchaser -- someone with no criminal record who can therefore pass a background check and buy a gun, but then sell it or let it fall into the hands of someone who uses it for crime. When police trace that gun back to the original purchaser, that person often gets off the hook by claiming it was stolen or lost.
"Without a lost-and-stolen gun provision, [investigators] are kind of powerless when they trace the gun back to someone who says it was lost or stolen," said Jana Finder, Western Pennsylvania coordinator of Ceasefire PA, which is pushing the measures. She said they're "targeting the people who [sell guns to criminals] regularly."
Neither Ceasefire PA nor other anti-violence or gun control groups contacted could name a city that has aggressively enforced a lost or stolen gun reporting law.
"It doesn't work anywhere it has been tried," said Rachel Parsons, a Washington, D.C.-based spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association. The group objects to the reporting laws because, she said, those whose guns were stolen "were already victimized, but we are going to criminalize [them] anyway."
Still, the NRA could not point to anyone who was unfairly victimized by existing lost or stolen gun reporting laws.
Cleveland certainly hasn't gone overboard.
"We've had two documented instances in which people have been brought before the court for violating the ordinance," said Martin L. Flask, Cleveland's public safety director. One was in 1996, the other five years later. In four other cases, police charged someone with failing to report, but prosecutors dropped it.
He maintained that the ordinance is "well crafted" and "has value" for the message it sends.
"Most citizens who lose [a gun], or have a firearm stolen, report the loss to law enforcement," he said.
In Columbus, Ohio, it is a misdemeanor to "knowingly fail to report to law enforcement authorities forthwith the loss or theft of any firearm." Last revised in 1996, that provision and related rules "appear to be rarely if ever enforced," wrote Jeffrey S. Furbee, Columbus' assistant city attorney and police legal adviser, in response to questions. Neither he, nor the city prosecutor, could recall anyone being charged for failure to report under the city code, nor an identical Ohio law.
"The lack of enforcement is likely, at least in part, due to the difficulty in enforcing these sections," he wrote, noting the burden it puts on prosecutors to prove that the owner knew the gun was gone.
Several other cities with similar laws said they aren't tracking charges or prosecutions, if indeed they are occurring.
Last year, Hartford, Conn., tried a different approach: requiring owners to report the loss or theft of a gun within 72 hours, or, if the gun is later used in a felony, face a lawsuit from the city seeking to recover the costs of investigating and prosecuting the crime. Though the city has had that power since May 2007, it has yet to file such a lawsuit, according to police public information officer Nancy M. Mulroy.
Philadelphia City Council passed its ordinance the same month Hartford did, and it hasn't been used in part because it has been tied up in court.
Commonwealth Court ruled in September that Philadelphia's gun control ordinances ran afoul of a state ban on local rules that "regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms." The majority of judges agreed that a 1996 state Supreme Court decision confirmed that "the General Assembly, not city councils, is the proper forum" for writing gun rules.
One judge dissented, finding no legal reason to bar local rules on gun theft reporting. The case is headed for the state Supreme Court.
The case could decide the fate of lost or stolen gun rules passed in Allentown early this month, contemplated in Lancaster, and moving through Pittsburgh City Council, where they will be the subject of a special meeting on Nov. 18 at 1 p.m., and a public hearing on Nov. 20 at 10 a.m., both in Council Chamber.
The local ordinances -- likely to be joined by promised proposals in five other Pennsylvania cities -- are a reaction to the state House's April vote against proposed lost or stolen gun reporting rules. The bill, authored by Rep. Dave Levdansky, D-Forward, fell 27 votes short.
Instead, the General Assembly later passed a measure making it illegal to lie to police about the loss or theft of a gun.
Under Pittsburgh's proposal, a gun owner would have to call police within 24 hours of learning of the loss or theft of a "firearm" -- that word may be changed to "handgun" -- or face a $500 fine for the first gun, and $1,000 plus 90 days in prison for a second failure to report.
Practically, it would be unlikely to be invoked unless a gun was used in a crime, recovered by police and traced back to an original owner.
The bill has seven co-sponsors on the nine-member council, making passage likely. But Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hasn't yet said whether he would veto it, or sign it and strenuously enforce it.
"I don't have a problem with the legislation or council's effort to deal with this very difficult issue," Mr. Ravenstahl said recently. "What I have a problem with is the false hope that it's going to give people, that it's somehow something that we can implement overnight. ... It's just a matter of whether it is a legal and enforceable piece of legislation, which I think now we would all agree that it's not."
"You have to have the political will to enforce a piece of legislation like this," said Councilman Bruce Kraus, a sponsor. "And you have to give it time. We're not going to see the positive effects of that for a year, or two or three."
First Published October 30, 2008 12:00 am