State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Bill to curb local gun restrictions goes to full House

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Mar 18, 2014 5:40 PM
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Photo by G.R. Wilson

Gun owners and groups like the National Rifle Association would be able to take municipalities to court over their local gun laws under a measure that passed a House committee with overwhelming support Tuesday.

The bill would give challengers of such restrictions the legal standing necessary to ask for court review of the ordinances. Successful challengers could be reimbursed by municipalities for legal costs and other expenses.

Supporters and opponents of the measure agree on the proposal's aim: to discourage local governments from passing laws regulating firearms and prompt them to get rid of the ones that already exist.

"We're trying to rein in local municipalities," said John Hohenwarter, director of government affairs for the NRA in Pennsylvania. The group has been pushing such legislation since at least 2012, when it reportedly helped write a similar bill with Sen. Rich Alloway (R-Franklin).

"All this bill really does is it allows people to make sure that the system that's supposed to be in place really is in place," said Rep. Bryan Barbin (D-Cambria).

But opponents say the measure would open up municipalities to frivolous lawsuits from gun rights advocates.

"It's called the lawyer-enrichment act, I think," joked Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray, who said the law would encourage frivolous lawsuits and cost taxpayer money. He also pointed out the bill would not allow cities to get reimbursed for their legal fees if they successfully defend a gun-related ordinance.

"I can't believe the General Assembly is considering it," said Gray.

State law passed in 1993 preempts local gun-related ordinances, so they tend not to be enforced. That means would-be challengers have no legal standing in court, because they're not afflicted by the ordinances -- they're only objecting to the restrictions based on theoretical opposition. And that means there's been no way to spur a court review of such restrictions.

One example is the requirement, adopted by 14 cities in Pennsylvania, to require people to report to police if their gun is lost or stolen. Gun control groups say such ordinances can tamp down the sale of illegal weapons. But no one interviewed for this story could point to examples of when local lost and stolen gun reporting requirements have been enforced.

"Part of the problem is if it were enforced -- ever -- then someone could raise the issue of whether it's constitutional," said Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery). "The reason the standing change has to occur is because no municipality's using it. And if it's such a great tool, why isn't it being used?"

Gun control advocates say they're meant to be an educational tool. In Lancaster's case, Gray said, the reporting requirement was purely symbolic: the ordinance was meant to send a message to the General Assembly. The people who got the message loud and clear: gun control groups.

"I have a question -- why do they want to litigate it if they can't even find one person harmed by it?" Gray said. "They want to play to their membership."

Hohenwarter said if Gray or other mayors are concerned their laws would leave them vulnerable to lawsuits under the House measure, "I would suggest they talk to their solicitor or council and get that law off the books."

The House Judiciary Committee approved the measure with a 20-5 vote. The panel delayed a vote on a separate proposal to do away with the state background check system used to determine a person's eligibility to acquire a gun or gun license.

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