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Police in Philly and other Pa. counties stop issuing license-to-carry permits to gun owners amid coronavirus outbreak

Gun owners could face arrest if they carry a firearm without a permit

A line of people wait outside of the Philadelphia Gun and Archery Club in South Philadelphia on Wednesday.
A line of people wait outside of the Philadelphia Gun and Archery Club in South Philadelphia on Wednesday.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a rush to purchase firearms and ammunition in the Philadelphia region and across Pennsylvania, leading to long lines at some gun shops.

But the Philadelphia Police Department has shut down its gun-permits unit. Firearm owners without a license-to-carry permit will, in almost all circumstances, not be able to carry the weapons without risking arrest.

Sheriff’s offices in Montgomery, Allegheny, and at least five Pennsylvania other counties have done the same, according to gun-rights groups that have been tracking the shutdowns.

Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, a Philadelphia police spokesperson, said the city stopped processing permits on Tuesday.

“Because this entire pandemic is inherently fluid, we can't predict how long it will be closed,” Kinebrew said.

The unit, located on Erie Avenue in North Philadelphia, had received about 1,900 license-to-carry permits since the beginning of February until it shut down.

Carrying a firearm without a permit is a third-degree felony, unless the person is otherwise eligible for a gun permit. In that case, it’s typically downgraded to a misdemeanor, Kinebrew said.

As a result of the pandemic, police in Philadelphia are delaying arrests for some crimes – including narcotics offenses, thefts, burglary and prostitution – but Kinebrew said Friday that officers would continue to arrest people carrying a firearm without a permit.

» READ MORE: ‘I’m looking to get an AR-15’: Gun shops are busy as coronavirus spreads, despite state-ordered shutdown

Kim Stolfer, president of Firearms Owners Against Crime, a Pennsylvania-based group, said he believes that ceasing to issue permits violates the state constitution and law.

“It’s illegal. There is no provision in the law allowing it,” Stolfer said Friday.

Stolfer said gun owners without a license would be risking arrest on serious charges if they carry the firearm outside their house or drive with it. In addition to Philadelphia, he said he was aware of seven Pennsylvania counties that have stopped issuing permits: Montgomery, Allegheny, Lackawanna, Erie, Monroe, Somerset, and Washington.

“If you want to defend yourself, you can’t do it unless you have a license to carry, and if you can’t get a license to carry you essentially have no right to defend yourself,” Stolfer said, referring to carrying a gun in public.

Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny said in an email Friday that issuing permits is “not an emergency service in my view.”

“I am sorry to inconvenience those wishing to receive their license-to-carry permits, but the health of my deputies and staff is paramount to me,” Kilkenny said.

Gun shops have been doing brisk business amid the coronavirus outbreak. There were so many requests for background checks on Tuesday that the state police computer system crashed twice. They completed 4,342 checks Tuesday, compared with 1,359 checks on the same day one year ago.

Gun shops, however, appear to fall under the category of businesses that will be required to close as a result of Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency order. He has ordered all but “life-sustaining” businesses to shut down by Saturday to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Wolf’s spokespeople have not responded to questions about how the order would affect gun shops.

» READ MORE: Ghost guns proliferate as Philadelphia grapples with gun violence

Joe Staudt, who owns Staudt’s Gun Shop in Harrisburg, said he expects to stay open as long as the state’s background check system for gun buyers is running.

“I have a drive-through window open right now,” Staudt said, sounding exasperated as he rushed to get off the phone with a reporter. “If the background check system stays open, we’re open. If it’s closed, we’re closed. Got to go.”

Staff writer Barbara Laker and Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA contributed to this article.