Pa. Supreme Court allows lawsuits over local gun ordinances to move forward

Now, individuals can challenge a city’s firearm restrictions even if they haven’t yet violated the law

By: - October 20, 2021 2:17 pm

Gun owners do not have to violate a local gun law to have legal standing to challenge its constitutionality in court, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The 4-3 decision from the high court allowed a challenge to five gun laws — adopted as early as 1821 and as late as 2009 — on the books in Harrisburg to proceed, ending a six-year court fight between the capital city and a statewide gun rights group.

The original judge ruled that the group, Firearm Owners Against Crime, and three firearm owners — including the group’s president Kim Stolfer — did not have standing to bring the case.

They brought the challenge to repeal the laws in 2015, after Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse publicly declared his intent to double down on enforcing the laws because “our police department feels that they are in the public interest, and I do too,” he told PennLive at the time.

Among the challenged laws was an ordinance requiring gun owners to report lost and stolen weapons to law enforcement or face penalties if they failed to do so; a ban on discharging a gun outside of a state- or city-sanctioned shooting range; and a ban on individuals younger than 18 years old possessing firearms.

However, the high court allowed the lawsuit to proceed, affirming a lower appeals court ruling from 2019.

In the majority opinion, Justice Sallie Mundy wrote that the plaintiffs “must choose to comply with the ordinances and forfeit their firearms rights, to violate the ordinances and risk criminal prosecution, or to avoid being present in the City.”

Therefore, they “are aggrieved by the ordinances and are the proper plaintiffs to pursue this declaratory judgment action.”

Gun owners don’t need to break local firearm laws to bring a legal challenge, Commonwealth Court rules

FOAC’s Stolfer said Wednesday that he was pleased with the ruling, which bodes well for gun rights supporters with more local gun ordinance legal fights underway.

The right to bear arms is guaranteed in the Pennsylvania constitution, and state law bans municipalities from passing their own gun ordinances.

However, many local laws restricting what people can purchase, and where they can carry guns remain on the books, such as in Harrisburg. 

Other cities, such as Pittsburgh, have openly flouted the state law in recent years, passing an assault weapons ban and an extreme risk protection order law after the Tree of Life shooting in 2018, in which a white supremacist killed 11 people at a syngouge. An Allegheny County judge tossed the laws, but the city has appealed that ruling.

That trend from cities concerned Stolfer, and while happy with the ruling, he was unhappy that three judges ruled against the case.

“If we’re not going to hold government accountable to follow the law, then we have anarchy,” Stolfer told the Capital-Star.

However, for advocates of stricter gun laws, the Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday “will chill the democratic process that helps drive policy at all levels, not make Pennsylvanians safer,” said Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFire PA.

Harrisburg’s Papenfuse agreed, jeering the decision as “a boon for lawyers and the gun lobby, but a disaster for the residents of Harrisburg and Pennsylvania.”

He told the Capital-Star that the laws already in force were common sense, and enforcing them helped make the city safer.

Papenfuse also pointed to federal law enforcement action Tuesday. The U.S. attorney’s office, in conjunction with Harrisburg police, charged 10 individuals with legally buying guns and then illegally transferring them to people with felony records who may not lawfully own a firearm.

That law enforcement action was enabled by Harrisburg’s lost and stolen ordinance, which seeks to crack down on these unlawful transfers, known as “straw purchases.” That same ordinance is challenged as part of FOAC’s lawsuit against Harrisburg.

“Every law-abiding gun owner in the city has wanted to follow it,” Papenfuse said.

Wednesday’s ruling partially puts into place what the Republican-controlled General Assembly tried to implement by law last decade. The lawsuit against Harrisburg was filed when that law was in place, but it was struck down by the high court in 2016 on a technicality.

Stolfer said that wanted the General Assembly to pass that legislation again, with a measure to allow plaintiffs in firearms suits to reclaim legal fees if they successfully sue a municipality. 

Such a bill is currently in the state Senate after the House approved it earlier this year. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf would likely veto it if it reached his desk.

The threat of legal fees to fight for local gun ordinances convinced at least 20 municipalities to repeal their own gun laws themselves. But regardless of the ruling, Papenfuse said he’d continue to fight the lawsuit in court.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.