Pittsburgh Wins Court Battle Over Gun Law, But Might Not Enforce It

Jun 21, 2016

Rifles line a wall at Memories Sportsman Shop in Sharpsburg on Friday, June 17, 2016. Owned and operated by Sam Stelitano, the hunting and fishing store has been open since 1990. Local officials say they might not enforce certain gun ordinances that could put them at risk for a lawsuit from a gun organization.
Credit Matt Nemeth / 90.5 WESA

Despite a victory in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Monday, members of Mayor Bill Peduto's administration are uncertain if they will enforce Pittsburgh’s straw purchase gun ordinance.

The high court struck down a 2014 state law that allowed outside organizations such as the National Rifle Association to sue cities without showing gun owners were harmed by the local laws, meaning their ability to acquire a gun was impeded. The NRA had sued Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Lancaster under that short-lived state law.

In a unanimous ruling, the justices upheld a Commonwealth Court decision that it was unconstitutional to include a provision to make it easier for organizations to challenge cities’ firearms ordinances in an unrelated bill on criminal penalties for theft.

“It’s not really a surprise," said Tim McNulty, a spokesman for Peduto. "We’ve been saying all along that this is an unconstitutional and illegal bill."

But city officials are hesitant to enforce the 2008 straw purchase gun ordinance that is intended to discourage city residents from buying firearms for felons who are barred from owning guns. 

“The pickle we’re in is if we do enforce our own ordinance on folks, the NRA can come in on behalf of these owners and sue us all over again," McNulty said. "We hope that doesn’t happen. We think it’s a very strong common sense bill that has nothing to do with responsible gun owners."

While the court decision blocks the NRA from suing municipalities on its own, it could still sue on behalf of resident gun owners who can demonstrate they’ve been harmed by the ordinance. 

“So if police do enforce this ordinance and the NRA gets their hands on that and tries to use it as a way to hammer us again in court and bankrupt us, it’s something we have to be wary of,” McNulty said.

The 2014 state law sparked lawsuits against Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Lancaster and scared several municipalities including Allentown and Bethlehem into repealing their gun ordinances for fear of being drawn into a costly court battle.

McNulty said even if the city opts not to enforce the ordinances, there is still a benefit.

“It’s a good educational tool," he said. "It tells responsible gun owners (to) make sure you work with police if your firearm is stolen. Furthermore, we’re willing to fight the fight against the NRA if we have to on behalf of city residents.”