The Lead

Pa. Senate committee approves bill that makes it easier to sue municipalities over local gun laws

By: - April 30, 2019 1:54 pm

A state Senate committee advanced a bill Tuesday that makes it easier for groups like the National Rifle Association to sue municipalities over local gun ordinances.

The legislation, introduced by Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Bedford, passed the Local Government Committee along party lines, 7-4.

Under state law, local municipalities in Pennsylvania are prevented from passing ordinances “dealing with the regulation of the transfer, ownership, transportation, or possession of firearms.” Cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have tested the limits of state preemption over the past two decades with varying results.

Langerholc’s bill would allow any gun owner who lives in Pennsylvania, or any organization with members who are Pennsylvania gun owners, to bring suit against municipalities that violate the preemption clause.

An identical bill passed the full Senate 34-16 in 2017. Three Democrats — Lisa Boscola, Jim Brewster, and John Yudichak — voted in favor of the bill, while Southeast Republican Sens. Stewart Greenleaf, Tom Killion, and Thomas McGarrigle voted against the measure.

The House never took up the bill, which Gov. Tom Wolf promised to veto.

Similar language was — briefly — the law of the land in Pennsylvania.

In 2014, Republican Sen. Richard Alloway introduced an amendment that gave the NRA and similar groups the right to sue over local gun laws. It was shoehorned into an existing piece of legislation that created a new crime, the theft of secondary metal.

Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill, and the NRA proceeded to sue Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Lancaster over ordinances requiring the reporting of lost or stolen firearms.

The victory was short-lived. In 2016, the Pa. Supreme Court struck down the law for violating the “single-subject rule,” which bars the Legislature from tackling differing topics in one piece of legislation.

In the interceding years, the General Assembly has passed one gun control measure, targeting firearm owners accused and convicted of domestic violence. But the lack of action in Harrisburg following the October massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh led that city’s council in early April to pass three gun control bills of its own.

Some were symbolic — like a measure to ban assault weapons if, and only if, the General Assembly ever gives the city that ability — while one takes Pittsburgh into uncharted territory.

Under “red flag” legislation passed by the council, a law enforcement officer or family member will be able to petition the Pittsburgh Municipal Court to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person at risk of harming himself or others. The creation of a statewide extreme risk protection order system is a top legislative priority for gun-control advocates in Harrisburg.

In defiance of Harrisburg, Pittsburgh passed its own gun control laws. What happens next?

So far, three separate legal actions have been filed against Pittsburgh. One, brought by city residents with the help of the NRA, targets a ban on carrying loaded ammunition magazines of a certain size. Another, brought by pro-gun political action committee Firearms Owners Against Crime, seeks an injunction against Mayor Bill Peduto and the council.

The third is a contempt petition brought by the Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League, which in 1995 settled a suit against the city over an assault weapons ban. While the settlement agreement states that both parties agree to follow Pennsylvania law, it also makes no judgment one way or the other about the question of preemption.

An Allegheny County Common Pleas judge is set consider the suits in late May.

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.