The Lead

Senate OKs bill strengthening veto-bound firearm ordinance preemption

By: - January 25, 2022 5:58 pm

The Republican-controlled Senate has approved a GOP-penned — and veto-bound bill — that would punish municipalities for enacting firearm ordinances stricter than Pennsylvania law.

The previously approved House legislation, authored by state Rep. Matthew Dowling, R-Fayette, makes towns and cities responsible for all legal costs in successful court challenges to local restrictions. The Senate on Tuesday voted 32-17 to send the proposal to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.

The Democratic governor already has vowed to veto the legislation, calling it another attempt by the General Assembly to “loosen common-sense gun laws and prevent communities from enacting their own ordinances at a time when communities across the commonwealth are working to address gun violence,” his office said in a statement to the Capital-Star.

Existing state law prohibits municipalities from circumventing state firearms laws. But local governing boards, such as those in Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, have passed stricter gun ordinances. Dowling and Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Clearfield, whose companion bill advanced out of the Senate in November, say this legislation will prevent counties from enacting such ordinances — or risk financial consequences.

“Does what we say here matters? Do the bills that we pass here that go on to become law — do they matter? Because over the years, there has been a patchwork of municipalities that don’t think so,” Langerholc said, describing local firearm ordinances stricter than state law as “essentially spitting in the face” of the General Assembly.

Dowling’s legislation gives municipalities 60 days’ written notice to repeal an ordinance to avoid litigation. The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General would also alert the state township and borough associations about what the bill requires before it takes effect.

Sen. Jim Brewster, D-Allegheny, voted in favor of the legislation, saying that he did not think it would save even one life. But Brewster, speaking from his experience as McKeesport mayor, said the vast majority of homicides he saw while serving in the local-level office involved stolen guns.

“I would like to see us spend more time, more energy, more resources on mental health,” he added.

Opponents worry deep-pocketed outside groups, including the National Rifle Association, will sue municipalities and leave taxpayers to front the cost.

“You’re darn right it does. And it should,” Langerholc said of the bill allowing outside groups suing municipalities.

Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery, offered an amendment, which failed, that would have allowed local governments to regulate the carry and use of firearms in publicly-owned lands and facilities through a local ordinance or resolution. She added that the bill, without her amendment, would contradict the “local control is best” approach adopted by Republicans for COVID-19 regulations.

Sen. Carolyn Comitta, D-Chester, added that local communities enacting firearm ordinances are doing the work the Legislature has “failed to adequately address.” She urged her colleagues to focus on reform such as universal background checks, lost and stolen gun reporting, or red flag laws

“I hope we can work together on that,” she said. “But if we cannot, let’s not stand in the way of those who are.”

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