A state judge sends a strong message on Pa.’s local gun preemption law | Wednesday Morning Coffee

Philly’s ‘overwhelming blight of gun violence’ should prompt a reexamination by the state Supreme Court, Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter said

February 16, 2022 7:11 am

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg (Capital-Star file)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

A Commonwealth Court hearing earlier this week examining Philadelphia’s ordinance giving gun owners 24 hours to report lost and stolen firearms to city police went pretty much the way you’d think it would.

A three-judge panel found the ordinance unenforceable because it’s preempted by existing state law, our friends at the Legal Intelligencer report (registration required).

Case closed, right? Not so fast.

Gun violence reduction advocates, who have been pressing for a statewide lost-and-stolen law since roughly the time of the flintlock musket, might be cheered, however, by a one-page concurring opinion filed by Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, who couldn’t help but notice that Pennsylvania’s largest city has a bit of a problem with gun violence.

Leadbetter called on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to take another look at the 1996 precedent finding that state law trumps all local gun ordinances, the Legal Intelligencer reported.

“It is neither just to impose unnecessarily harsh limits in communities where they are not required nor consistent with simple humanity to deny basic safety regulations to citizens who desperately need them,” Leadbetter wrote. “When a child cannot leave his home to walk to the corner of his street without risking the prospect of being caught in a crossfire, we are denying him the most fundamental right, that of life and liberty.”

According to the Legal Intelligencer, the appellate court’s majority looked to that 1996 case, Ortiz v. Commonwealth, where the high court ruled that since “the General Assembly has denied all municipalities the power to regulate the ownership, possession and transfer of firearms … the General Assembly, not city councils, is the proper forum for the imposition of such regulation.”

Judge Patricia McCullough, writing for the majority, agreed, and said that Philadelphia’s ordinance was “therefore invalid and unenforceable,” the Legal Intelligencer reported.

Leadbetter acknowledged the conditions on the ground, but added that “it seems to me that the overwhelming blight of gun violence occurring in the City of Philadelphia, of which I believe we can take judicial notice, and the policy issues argued by the City in the case before us, call for a recognition that local conditions may well justify more severe restrictions than are necessary statewide.”

Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his final budget address to a joint session of the state House and Senate on Tuesday, 2/8/22 (Commonwealth Media Services photo).

The debate over local preemption has been a recurring one in the General Assembly.

Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a Republican-authored bill that would have granted anyone the legal standing to challenge municipal firearms ordinances, and required local taxpayers to foot the bill for successful challenges, the Capital-Star previously reported.

Republicans, who remain ardent supporters of local control until they’re not, have long sought to short-circuit efforts by Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, who have flouted state law, to enact their own firearms ordinances. So, on one level, the Commonwealth Court’s ruling was a win.

The state Supreme Court bill got tossed a similar preemption bill in 2016 over a fatal procedural flaw. Last October, the state’s highest court refined its jurisprudence, finding that someone does not have to be directly aggrieved to have the standing to challenge a local firearms ordinance, the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso reported.

(Photo via Getty Images/Colorado Newsline.)

Debate continued outside the courtroom.

Pro-gun rights lawyer Joshua Prince, who told the Legal Intelligencer that Leadbetter’s concurrence was “extremely disconcerting” and “a call for judicial activism.”

“It’s outside the scope of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to reconsider that which is a constitutional provision,” Prince told the Legal Intelligencer. “We believe that to the extent that Philadelphia believes the law should be changed, its sole recourse is that with the General Assembly and seeking a constitutional amendment.”

But according to one gun violence reduction advocate, a second look from the state’s highest court is long overdue.

“Since the Supreme Court last considered preemption, gun violence has risen 19% across the Commonwealth,” Adam Garber, the executive director of the Philadelphia-based group CeaseFirePa, told the Capital-Star.

In Philadelphia, “the reality is worse, where just living in the city poses a risk to your life from gun violence,” Garber continued. “The only thing that hasn’t changed: the General Assembly’s refusal to enact evidence-based solutions to this epidemic that threatens Pennsylvanians’ life and liberty.”

Philadelphia marked its deadliest year in recent memory in 2021, with 562 homicides and 2,332 total shootings, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune reported last month.

Leadbetter “couldn’t be more right. We are significantly overdue for the Supreme Court to consider how municipalities have a duty, and should have the ability, to safeguard the basis of every other constitutional right: the ability to live safely,” Garber argued.

City officials have been doing what they can to address the bloodshed. But without broader, more systemic changes, the situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

“Gun violence is a symptom; it is not the overarching problem,” Erica Atwood, the senior director of Philadelphia’s Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice and Public Safety told last week.

“If we do not look at the issues of poverty, poor access to mental and behavioral health, poor access to quality education and training and economic mobility, we are going to continue to have these conversations every 15 to 20 years,” Atwood continued.

So, all the better, it would seem, if the state’s highest court wanted to put an extra arrow in the city’s quiver as it tries to stop the violence within its borders.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Trump ally and gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania, who was in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, 2020, has been subpoenaed by the U.S. House Committee investigating the Capitol attack, Marley Parish reports.

Pennsylvania-licensed nurses could soon see some debt relief through a recently launched, one-time student loan forgiveness program, which has already seen overwhelming demand. And the deadline to apply for help is soon approaching. Marley Parish has the story.

Legislation that would ban a fundraising tactic pioneered by former President Donald Trump — and deemed unethical after duping supporters into recurring donations — is in the works for Pennsylvania, Marley Parish also reports.

State officials are encouraging Pennsylvania’s workforce – especially its health care workers who have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic – to take advantage of a free, online educational tool designed to inform, and provide them with guidance on substance use disorder. Cassie Miller has the story.

Pennsylvania’s new bipartisan, bicameral broadband authority met for the first time Tuesday to figure out how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid to expand internet access across the commonwealth, Stephen Caruso reports.

The University of Pennsylvania is creating a tuition-free program to prepare and deploy a diverse group of nursing practitioners to provide health care in underserved communities across the U.S., our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

On our Commentary Page this morning: Congressional redistricting has flopped again – but there might be hope for a fixPatrick Beaty, of FairDistricts PA, writes. And from an Indiana University expert: Here’s how poisonous mercury gets from coal-fired power plants into the fish you eat.

(Image via

Philadelphia is looking at using cryptocurrency to raise money, the Inquirer reports.

The Catholic diocese of Pittsburgh will drop its mask requirement at month’s end, the Post-Gazette reports.

First year medical school enrollment among Black students has reached an historic highPennLive reports.

A Lancaster County man who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6 has been sentenced to two years’ probationLancasterOnline reports.

Part of Route 33 in the Lehigh Valley will be closed on Friday night and into Saturday for repairs — expect delays, the Morning Call reports.

A Luzerne County police chief who survived a bout with COVID-19 has announced his retirement, the Citizens’ Voice reports.

A Philadelphia start-up has been awarded a $450K grant to encourage Black real estate development in Philadelphia, WHYY-FM reports.

Case studies in Allentown and Reading demonstrate how redistricting can impact Latino communities for better — and worse, WITF-FM reports.

Erie motorists are feeling the pain at the pump as gas prices rise nationwide, GoErie reports.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Jake Corman, the top Republican in the state Senate, has rejiggered his campaign staffPoliticsPA reports (via the Inquirer).

City & State Pa. looks at efforts to bring racial equity to redistricting.

Some of the issues that buoyed President Joe Biden in 2020, such as masking, won’t help Democrats in 2022Roll Call reports.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

What Goes On
Budget hearings continue in the House.
10 a.m.: Department of Corrections
1 p.m.:  Department of General Services and Office of Administration

9:30 a.m., 8-EB East Wing: Center for Rural Pennsylvania, public hearing on battling the opioid addiction and overdose crisis
11 a.m., Online-Only: House & Senate Democrats call for more money for rental assistance
12 p.m., G50 Irvis: House Democratic Policy Committee, hearing on safe schools
2 p.m., Main Rotunda: Rep. Joe Ciresi, and others, on efforts to promote safe schools. Yes, it’s a tie-in event
3 p.m., North Office Building: Rally against insurrectionists getting on the spring ballot

Gov. Tom Wolf holds an 11 a.m. newser at Dixon University Center in Harrisburg to talk about his college affordability plans.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept
Best wishes go out this morning to Abby Foster, of the Bravo Group, in Harrisburg, who celebrates today.

Heavy Rotation
Here’s some new music from Spoon to get you over the hump on this Hump Day. From the band’s new LP ‘Lucifer on the Sofa,’ it’s ‘The Hardest Cut.’

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link
Sidney Crosby scored his 500th goal as the Pens edged out Philadelphia 5-4 in overtime on Tuesday night.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.