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Politics & Government

Municipal Gun Laws Targeted In 11th Hour Legislative Session

In the eleventh hour of this year’s state legislative session, Republicans are again trying to pass legislation that would allow citizens and groups to sue municipalities that pass gun laws.

House Bill 1796 was drafted by Representative Todd Stephens, a Republican from Montgomery County, and meant to beef up protections for victims of domestic violence.

An amendment approved in the Senate late last night added language that has come before the legislature in the past.

Stephen said he’d prefer to see the bill pass clean.

“In the house I actually was able to stop some amendments that were being discussed, but then the bill went over to the Senate and they’re certainly of course free to offer and adopt any amendments that they see fit, and if they do we’ll consider it back over on the house side,” Stephens said.

At issue is whether individual gun owners or “membership organizations,” like the National Rifle Association, can sue municipalities over laws that “adversely” affect them.

Rob Conroy of CeaseFire PA said the laws being targeted are those that require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms to the local police within a certain amount of time, usually 72 hours.

He said most guns used in violent crimes are not legally registered to the people that fired them.

“(The police) go back to the last lawful owner and they ask them a question like ‘How did your gun end up at this crime scene?’” Conroy said. “Almost inevitably, the person who is being asked this says ‘My gun was lost or it was stolen.’ When the police ask them, ‘Did you report this at the time?’ fewer than half of them have reported this.”

Conroy said the laws do not violate the state or national constitutions because they refer specifically to guns that are no longer in the possession of their legal owners.

“The rationale for passing these local laws was, if a gun is no longer in the possession of the lawful owner, then it’s not a lawfully owned or transferred firearm. That firearm has been unlawfully transferred,” Conroy said.

Although Rep. Stephens said he’s against adding the amendment to the domestic violence bill, he is in favor of the law in essence.

He held that such local ordinances do violate state and federal law, which is why local municipalities are not actually enforcing them.

“The minute it is (enforced), then someone would be able to challenge the constitutionality of that ordinance,” Stephens said. “As a result, the local municipalities are not enforcing them, because they don’t want to have to defend what is probably an indefensible ordinance.”

The NRA unsuccessfully sued the city of Pittsburgh over its lost and stolen gun law in 2009. The suit was dismissed by Allegheny County Judge R. Stanton Wettick on the grounds that the NRA did not have legal standing to file such a lawsuit because they could not prove that anyone was harmed by the law.

Conroy said the proposed amendment to Stephens’ domestic violence bill would remove that “legal standing” requirement and would open up municipalities to be sued by people who do not reside there and have no evidence that they’ve been harmed by such an ordinance.

Conroy said the bill is an intimidation tactic to prevent local municipalities from passing any laws having to do with gun ownership, while Stephens said it simply provides a mechanism for individuals and groups to challenge laws that violate the state constitution.

Lawmakers voted last night to extend the legislative session, in order to buy more time for the gun bill and others. Wednesday was to have been the final voting day of 2014, but the House and Senate each added a day to their calendars. The Senate returns today, and the House will reconvene Monday.