Philly sues again to overturn state ban on local firearm regulations

(Photo via the Philadelphia Tribune)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — The city has filed another state lawsuit aiming to strike down Pennsylvania’s firearm preemption laws that bar local gun regulations.

In a lawsuit filed in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania on Wednesday, the city and nearly a dozen plaintiffs argue the state preemption laws and lack of gun regulations violate the state’s Constitution and have created a public health crisis.

The city will receive pro bono legal counsel from the Public Interest Law Center and Hogan Lovells US LLP, the latter of which is among the largest law firms in the world.

The lawsuit comes as Philadelphia homicide rate – 366 — eclipsed last year’s total — 356 — with 85 days left in 2020.

Mayor Jim Kenney said the state General Assembly continues to handcuff the city’s attempts to put in place sensible gun laws during a news conference on the basketball courts of the Happy Hollow Recreation Center in Germantown.

“While gun violence affects our entire city, our Black and brown communities are disproportionately impacted by the trauma of gun violence,” Kenney said. “This must end.”

The news conference was attended by a slew of city and state Democrats and other stakeholders. Not a single Republican was present.

Unlike the city’s previous failed legal challenges to the state’s 1970s-era preemption laws, the legal argument was new and untested in the courts for the city, said City Solicitor Marcel Pratt during a news conference.

Council President Darrell Clarke said the state current gun regulations, including identification requirements and background checks, are a “sham” that allow firearms purchased legally elsewhere in the state to flow into the city.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include individuals affected by gun violence in Philadelphia — Stanley Crawford, Tracey Anderson, Aishah George, Rita Gonsalves, Maria Gonsalves-Perkins, Tamika Morales, Cheryl Pedro, and Rosalind Pichardo, — as well as those from Pittsburgh and that region — Delia Chatterfield and Wynona Harper.

The Philadelphia-based nonprofit Ceasefire Pennsylvania Education Fund is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Named in the lawsuit are Speaker of the State House of Representatives Bryan Cutler, a Republican; state Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati III, a Republican; the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; and the state General Assembly.

In an email, Culter spokesman Mike Straub said state preemption powers are carved out in the state Constitution and have been upheld by the courts.

“Ultimately, this is another example of Democrat leaders making an end-run around the legislature by seeking action in the courts rather than the constitutionally-provided legislative process in changing our state’s laws,” Straub said.

Scarnati did not immediately return calls for comment.

The state firearm preemption laws prevent municipalities from passing gun regulations. State officials have expanded and tweaked the legislation several times over the years.

The Republican-controlled state House of Representatives and Senate have squashed any attempts at new gun regulations in recent years.

Philadelphia has passed numerous gun regulations over the decades, only to have the state preemption laws render them unenforceable.

The city lawsuit argues the state preemption laws and state’s absence to pass firearm regulations violate the state Constitution by creating a public health danger and infringe on due process rights, as well as deprive Philadelphia of its ability to address gun violence.

The city sought an injunction that prohibits the enforcement of the preemption laws and compels the state to maintain the safety and welfare of all Pennsylvanians, among other things.

McKenzie, the legal director at the Public Interest Law Center and attorney representing the city, said gun violence was a public health crisis and civil rights issue that disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic communities.

“The state firearm preemption laws that we’re challenging block local government from passing these laws that would save lives,” McKenzie said.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley called gun violence a public health problem, noting that more Philadelphians die of homicides than diabetes annually. Among Black Philadelphia men, homicide is leading cause of years of potential life lost.

Farley said the state’s “smothering” preemption laws prohibit the city from tackling a critical element of its public health approach to combating gun violence: firearm regulation.

“The laws of the state of Pennsylvania are preventing us from saving our own children from gun violence,” Farley said. “We can’t accept that and we won’t accept that.”

Gun violence overwhelmingly affects African Americans in Philadelphia. Blacks accounted for nearly 86 percent of all homicides and 85 percent of all shooting victims, according to Philadelphia Police data from earlier this week when homicides were at 355.

Councilman Curtis Jones, a Democrat of District 4, compared the city’s high homicide rate to Americans who have died in Afghanistan.

“In all of 2019, 22 soldiers died in Afghanistan,” Jones said. “Twenty-two — that’s a bad weekend in the city of Philadelphia.”

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.