The Lead

Philly Council seeks temporary halt to state’s preemption of local gun laws

By: - April 3, 2023 10:15 am
Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia City Hall (Adobe Stock/The Philadelphia Gay News)

By Stephen Williams

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia City Council has approved a resolution calling on the state Legislature to temporarily suspend its gun law preemption for Philadelphia and other big cities to allow the city to enforce efforts to address the problem.

Under Pennsylvania law, preemption is a part of its Uniform Firearms Act. As a result, municipalities cannot enact gun laws that are stricter than state laws. About 40 states have similar laws.

After two consecutive years of 500-plus gun-related homicides — a majority by gunfire and mostly affecting young Black men — residents are demanding that government do more.

City Council has previously passed several gun laws only to see state courts overturn them.

For example, in 2007, Council passed laws such limiting purchases to one gun a month, a requirement to report lost or stolen guns, and allowing police to confiscate guns from a person who deemed to be a risk to themselves or others.

The laws were all overturned by state courts.

“We’ve passed commonsense gun laws, but we’ve been held hostage [by state law],”  Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., who introduced the resolution, said. “This is the No. 1 issue.”

In the upcoming budget session, Jones said, Council must allocate funds for summer jobs for every young person that wants one. “All of this is related to gun violence.”

The political atmosphere in Harrisburg has changed. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro is a Democrat from Montgomery County, a Philadelphia suburb. Shapiro, a former state attorney, is no stranger to fighting gun violence.

Earlier this month, the state House of Representatives voted in Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-191st District, as the first African-American female speaker, as Democrats took control of that body.

The resolution introduced last week  is just one of a series of moves by the city and Council to deal with gun violence.

In the last session, Council overturned Mayor Jim Kenney’s veto of a law to create a chief public safety director, to oversee the police, prisons, recreation, emergency management and other departments.

Council President Darrell Clark said giving control of public safety to one person should consolidate power and has been effective in other cities.

But critics, including Kenney, say they are not sure about such a new command structure. But the voters will decide on May 16, because creating the new position requires a charter change.

Under the city charter, all operating departments report to Philadelphia’s managing director.

In addition, Council recently won an arbitration dispute with the Fraternal Order of Police that allowed it to create public safety officers, who will direct traffic and help to remove abandoned vehicles. They will not be represented by the FOP. This should free up current police officers in civilian jobs to be out on the street to fight crime, Clarke said.

In Kenney’s $6.1 billion 2024 budget to City Council, about a third, or $1.6 billion of that money is proposed for public safety, such as staffing and funding for the police department, fire department and prisons.

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For example, the police budget will rise to about $850 million, from about $800 million in the last budget. The city also intends to spend $2 million on recruitment and retention for city workers, including police. Another $223 million is proposed for funds to improve safety, anti-violence initiatives such as support and resources for communities hit hardest by the violence.

But Council members said more must be done.

Councilmember Cindy Bass spoke about Devin Weedon, a 15-year-old student at Simon Gratz High School, who was killed near the school, last week.

“We know that these guns are in people’s homes,” Bass said. “It was in someone’s home, so we have a campaign called: ‘What do you do when the shooter lives with you?’ And we started to take it a little bit further to really get parents to get engaged on this. We started a little campaign called ‘flip mattress Friday.’

“We are calling or parents, caregivers foster parents and whoever, if you think, know or suspect that there is even a probability that a young person in your house is involved in gun violence,” Bass said. “Then we have to flip that mattress, run through that room and look anywhere and everywhere throughout you house to make sure that firearm is removed to keep them out of harm’s way and to keep someone else out of harm’s way.”

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson said, “It’s that type of due diligence in terms of parenting that goes a long way. We are doing everything we can to address this issue. But it’s a collaborative effort and it starts in the home. We have to do a better job of raising our young people as a village.

“Those who shoot, those who wreak havoc on our community have to be held accountable,” Johnson added.

But law enforcement has to figure out where the guns are coming from, he said.

So Johnson said he will advocate for the expansion of a gun violence task force that is a partnership between the state Attorney General’s office, District Attorney Larry Krasner and the Philadelphia Police Department.

“There are so many guns flooding the streets of Philadelphia, which plays a major role in the accessibility of gun to young people,” Johnson said. “Let’s go after whoever is selling the guns to young people.”

Stephen Williams is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared

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