How state-level preemption laws are getting worse, report | Monday Morning Coffee

August 12, 2019 7:04 am

Good Monday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

We’re at the precipice of a new debate over gun laws. And one thing, after Squirrel HIll, seems pretty sure: If state officials don’t move in some measurable way to fight gun violence, then cities and municipalities may well end up doing that work for them.

Such was the case in Pittsburgh, where city officials moved to enact their own gun ban in the wake of last year’s deadly Tree of Life synagogue shootings that claimed 11 lives. Pittsburgh scored another big win for local control earlier this summer when its rule requiring employers to provide paid sick leave was upheld by the state Supreme Court.

But as the Capital-Star’s Sarah Anne Hughes explained in a thorough and well-reported story last month, state lawmakers in Harrisburg aren’t shy about preempting local ordinances when the mood suits them. Often, this is over fears of creating a patchwork of laws across the commonwealth. More often, it’s about a power-struggle between state government and Pennsylvania’s largest cities.

And as our friends at CityLab report, this phenomenon is getting worse — and not better.

EL PASO, TEXAS – AUGUST 04: A woman walks away from a makeshift memorial outside Walmart, near the scene of a mass shooting which left at least 20 people dead, on August 4, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. A 21-year-old male suspect, identified as Patrick Crusius from a Dallas suburb, surrendered to police at the scene. At least 26 people were wounded in the shooting. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Take for instance, last weekend’s shooting in Dayton, Ohio that killed nine people. As CityLab notes, the AR-15-style rifle that the accused shooter used in that murderous rampage would have been illegal in Dayton if the incident had taken place before 2006.

But that year, state officials passed a law “[wiping] out assault weapon bans and other gun control ordinances in roughly 80 cities throughout the state, including Dayton. That bill forbade cities from passing tougher gun regulations than what already exists in state laws. Ohio is one of 43 states that have laws that preempt or preclude cities and municipal governments from creating their own gun control ordinances—this despite the fact that cities bear the brunt of gun violence in most states,” CityLab reported.

But far more than gun laws are covered by such state-level preemption efforts, according to a new report by the Local Solutions Support Center and the State Innovation Exchange. The report, ominously titled, “The Growing Shadow of State Interference” offers this sobering, bottom-line conclusion:

“Local governments lost power again in 2019. Many state legislatures continued the trend started in 2011 of passing more, broader, and punitive preemption laws. Those laws, driven almost exclusively by special interests, once again stopped cities, towns and counties from acting to protect and promote the health, safety and civil rights of their residents.”

Similar preemption efforts are under consideration in Pennsylvania, as the Capital-Star’s Hughes reported last month. State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, has, for instance, reintroduced legislation that would “preempt local governments from passing labor policies which impact private businesses and their employees.”

“For decades, labor policy has been set forth at the state level. This led to a predictable economic environment and uniform workplace policies across the Commonwealth,” Grove said in a 2018 statement. “Of late, however, local governments have adopted local ordinances, creating a patchwork system of policy throughout the state.”

The Pittsburgh skyline, viewed from the Duquesne Incline. (Dllu/WikiMedia Commons)

Here’s why this matters now: Sick of waiting for Harrisburg to act on gun violence, and having borne witness to Pittsburgh, more municipalities and cities (which tend to be controlled by Democrats) could move on their own to enact gun laws. And state officials have not been shy, witness the case of Harrisburg, to try to derail those efforts.

Pittsburgh’s gun-control laws have been halted by litigation. And as CityLab notes, it’s impossible to say if the Dayton massacre could have been averted if the state’s preemption law had not been on the books. But one thing is certain, “gun-related deaths have increased almost every year in Ohio since the state overturned its local gun control laws.

The majority of those gun deaths have occurred in Ohio’s major cities: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, Akron, and Dayton,’ according to CityLab. And “those cities happen to all be the places where state legislators voted against the 2006 state preemption law, in order to protect cities’ abilities to address gun violence on their own terms.”

Orange-clad advocates rally in the Capitol Rotunda during a Gun Violence Awareness Day event (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

There have been encouraging noises over the last few days in Pennsylvania about passing expanded background checks and “red flag” laws that could keep guns out of the hands of those who should not have them.

If state lawmakers fail to act — and there is every expectation to believe that is the case — they may want to think long and hard about trying to interfere with local officials’ efforts to protect their citizens. Republicans are holding onto their Senate majority by their fingernails. And Democrats have a two-cycle strategy to retake the state House that appears to be working.

Last week’s Franklin & Marshall poll reinforced the hard reality that public opinion is far ahead of policymakers when it comes to fighting gun violence. Lawmakers could pay a dear price in 2020 if they fail to act in Harrisburg, stymie local efforts, and then only watch as more people die.

The political cost — to say nothing of the moral cost — will be dear, indeed.

WikiMedia Commons

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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.