Gun rights activists across Pennsylvania are encouraging county and municipal leaders to adopt “Second Amendment Sanctuary” ordinances to prevent local governments from enforcing a broad range of gun restrictions.
But the president of a prominent gun rights group in Pennsylvania is not on board.
“I personally believe that these things are misguided,” said Kim Stolfer of Firearms Owners Against Crime, based in southwestern Pennsylvania. “And it flaunts the law.”
Stolfer and his group aren’t known for backing away from fights to protect gun rights.
The group opposed a 2018 bill aimed at disarming domestic abusers at the same time the National Rifle Association, the nation’s most prominent gun rights group, was neutral on the bill.
But Stolfer said the push for local Second Amendment Sanctuary ordinances would create problems for gun rights in Pennsylvania.
He said he worries it would encourage counties and municipalities to pass their own gun restrictions — something his group has successfully fought in court.
“We believe it (would) send the wrong message,” he said.
What the ordinances would do
Gun Owners of America, a Virginia-based group that calls itself the “no compromise” gun lobby, has provided a model version of the ordinance to gun rights activists across the country.
The proposed ordinance would prevent counties from enforcing any “Unlawful Act” — defined as a restriction on a person’s “constitutional right to keep and bear arms.”
That proposed ordinance offers seven examples of what the group says are illegal laws, including any laws giving law enforcement the power to confiscate guns.
Val Finnell, Pennsylvania director of Gun Owners of America, said the ordinances are aimed at new gun laws that might pass out of Washington, D.C., or Harrisburg.
The news organization The Trace reported that more than 400 municipalities in 20 states have passed some type of resolution opposing enforcement of certain gun laws. The name of the ordinance was inspired by the “sanctuary cities” movement in which local governments declare their unwillingness to aid or support enforcement of certain immigration policies.
The proposed gun rights ordinances in Pennsylvania go further than symbolic resolutions, as they would have the force of law.
Two Republican legislators — Rep. Stephanie Borowicz of Clinton County and Rep. Aaron Bernstine of Lawrence County — have publicly endorsed these ordinances. In a letter to local elected officials, Bernstine wrote that the ordinance would protect people from “overreaching politicians and bureaucrats in Harrisburg and Washington …”
But Stolfer said the proposed ordinances would run afoul of preemption laws that give state lawmakers — not local government leaders — the power to regulate guns.
In 1996, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against “assault weapons” bans in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, saying “regulation of firearms is a matter of concern in all of Pennsylvania, … and the General Assembly, not city councils, is the proper forum for the imposition of such regulation.”
In the wake of the October 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue shooting that left 11 people dead, Pittsburgh leaders approved new gun restrictions. Firearms Owners Against Crime and others challenged the city laws and won an initial ruling in October 2019 in which an Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas judge found that state law preempts any local regulation of firearms. The city appealed to Commonwealth Court where the case is still pending
Stolfer said he appreciates the passion of people promoting Second Amendment Sanctuary ordinances and understands their frustration with gun restrictions that have passed. But he said it would be hypocritical for him to pretend the preemption laws don’t exist.
He said the power to enact gun laws needs to remain with state lawmakers to avoid creating “a patchwork quilt” of gun laws across the state, and he said local communities don’t have the experience and expertise needed to tackle complex gun laws.
“Without that kind of focus and specialization in this area of law, mistakes can be made and these mistakes can be very costly and unfortunate,” Stolfer said.
Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University, called these ordinances and resolutions “publicity stunts.”
“You can’t pass a law that says you’re going to break the law,” Ledewitz told The Daily Item in Northumberland County.
Adam Skaggs, chief counsel and policy director for the Giffords Law Center, which supports increased gun restrictions, said courts have the power to declare a law unconstitutional — not local leaders.
“They don’t have the ability to simply say, ‘Well, I don’t like that law. … I’m not going to comply with that,’ ” he said.
The local effort
Finnell, the Pennsylvania director of Gun Owners of America, said Second Amendment Sanctuary backers attempted to draft the ordinance so that it will hold up in court.
He said the ordinance would uphold “the higher law of the Constitution of the commonwealth, the Constitution of the United States.”
“The preemption law does not trump those things,” he said.
The National Rifle Association hasn’t weighed in one way or another on the effort in Pennsylvania, Finnell said. On Friday, an NRA spokesperson referred to a statement the group issued in December in which it said it is, “the tyrannical nature of politicians that triggers sanctuary, not the other way around.” The group declined to comment on Pennsylvania specifically.
Meanwhile, the gun sanctuary campaign continues across Pennsylvania.
In Pike County in northeastern Pennsylvania, the effort started in March 2019 after Bob Roche, 47, and Patti Coombs, 48, heard about a proposal to require most guns to be registered in Pennsylvania. The idea went nowhere in the GOP-controlled General Assembly, but it made an impression on the couple.
“We’re tired of every time you turn around, they’re making law, law, laws for law-abiding citizens, but they’re not doing anything about criminals or gangs or anything else like that,” Roche said.
Coombs and Roche started collecting signatures for a petition opposed to any new laws that would require gun registration, ban semi-automatic weapons or restrict magazine capacity.
Earlier this month, they said they had collected about 1,700 signatures, and they were working to gather more support before bringing the proposal to county commissioners.
In Indiana County, volunteers plan to hold a public meeting on the issue on Feb. 9, The Indiana Gazette reports.
In central Pennsylvania’s Juniata County, one of the leaders of the Second Amendment Sanctuary effort is 52-year-old Bob Gardner. He’s also the executive officer for the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia.
On New Year’s Eve, he and other supporters collected signatures outside Juniata County’s courthouse for a petition in support of a Second Amendment ordinance. Gardner said they handed in more than 400 signatures to county commissioners earlier this month.
“We’re just trying to enforce the laws that are on the books as it is,” Gardner said. “And we’re just trying to strengthen the Second Amendment within Pennsylvania, rather than lose it like what’s happening in Virginia right now.”
In Bradford County, commissioners voted 2-1 in December to adopt a symbolic Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution. But the commissioners in the northeastern Pennsylvania county of about 60,000 people said they weren’t sure about adopting an ordinance.
Doug McLinko, one of two Republican commissioners who supported the resolution, said he’s concerned about the preemption rules in Pennsylvania. He’s still doing research.
“It’s cloudy to me,” he said Friday.
Find this report and others at the site of our partner, PA Post.