2016-07-07 / Local & State

Despite Ruling, PA Towns Might Go Slow On Gun Laws

By Michael Rubinkam

Under threat of costly litigation, dozens of Pennsylvania municipalities repealed their gun ordinances last year in response to a new state law that made it easier for gun owners and groups like the National Rifle Association to challenge them in court.

Pennsylvania’s high court recently tossed the state law on technical grounds – but towns and cities might not be so quick to reinstate their firearms measures.

That’s because lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced bills that would once again permit the NRA to sue, with the Senate version already clearing committee. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has pledged to veto the measure if it reaches his desk.

The swift legislative action, coming amid state budget negotiations, took gun-control activists by surprise.

“Frankly, we didn’t expect they were going to try to do it this soon. We were disappointed and wrong, and we are going to have to fight it,’’ said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA. She predicted towns and cities that might be inclined to impose gun restrictions would choose to “wait a little bit longer to see what happens’’ with the legislation.

Pennsylvania, which has a strong tradition of hunting and gun ownership, has long prohibited its municipalities from enforcing firearms ordinances that regulate the ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of guns or ammunition. Gun-rights groups complained that scores of municipalities ignored the 40- year-old prohibition by approving their own gun restrictions.

The NRA seized on the new state law, which took effect in January 2015, to challenge gun measures in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lancaster. Other municipalities repealed their gun laws rather than face lawsuits.

Last month, the Supreme Court invalidated the state law, saying it was passed improperly, prompting mayors in at least two cities to say they’ll press for new gun measures.

Allentown plans to consider reinstating an ordinance that required gun owners to report lost or stolen weapons to police within 24 hours, an attempt to crack down on straw buyers who purchase guns legally and sell them to criminals.

Mayor Ed Pawlowski predicted city council approval, calling the measure a “practical, commonsense approach to making sure we are not letting these weapons wind up in the hands of criminals.’’

In Easton, Mayor Sal Panto told the city council he wants to ban guns on public property and institute a lost-and-stolen requirement.

Joshua Prince, an attorney for several pro-gun groups, put scores of municipalities on notice last year that they would be sued unless they rescinded their firearms ordinances. He promised similar legal action against Allentown and Easton if they go through with any new gun measures, saying he has clients in both cities.

“These ordinances are illegal now and have been illegal,’’ said Jonathan Goldstein, an attorney for the NRA. “To the extent you have municipalities saying they are going to reinstate these things, they are breaking the law.’’

Like the recently overturned law, the House and Senate bills would give groups like the NRA the ability to sue on behalf of any Pennsylvania member, and gun owners would not have to prove they have been harmed by the local measure to successfully challenge it.

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