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Philadelphia sues Pennsylvania over inability to enact city-specific gun laws

The legal effort will mark the latest attempt by local leaders in Pennsylvania to overturn a concept known as preemption, which prohibits cities from passing local gun laws.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney speaks while announcing a lawsuit against Pennsylvania designed to challenge the city’s long-standing inability to enact its own gun control ordinances.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney speaks while announcing a lawsuit against Pennsylvania designed to challenge the city’s long-standing inability to enact its own gun control ordinances.Read more

Mayor Jim Kenney and a host of city leaders on Wednesday announced a lawsuit against Pennsylvania seeking the right to enact its own gun-control ordinances.

The legal effort marks the latest attempt by local officials in Pennsylvania to overturn a concept in state law known as preemption, which prohibits cities from creating and enforcing local gun laws.

It also comes as the city is in the midst of its most violent year in more than a decade. Through Tuesday, 366 people have been killed in 2020 — the vast majority fatally shot — and more than 1,600 people have been wounded in shootings, according to police statistics.

Kenney, speaking at a packed news conference in Germantown to promote the legal action, said preemption “handcuffs” local governments from taking measures that could protect residents. City Council President Darrell L. Clarke said that without action from state legislators to try to prevent the proliferation of guns in a city long wracked by violence, city officials had little choice but to resort to the courts.

“It is time for us to do what we have to do,” Clarke said.

Still, pushback from Republicans in Harrisburg — who control the legislature — came quickly.

Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), said preemption “was not some amorphous legal principle,” but was a concept included in the Pennsylvania Constitution that “has been upheld by the courts time and again.” He said the lawsuit was an attempt by Democrats to bypass the legislative process.

He also accused Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner of failing to enforce or uphold existing criminal gun laws and allowing “violent criminals back on the streets."

Krasner’s spokesperson, Jane Roh, called those assertions “lazy lies from the most corrupt, dangerous, out-of-touch legislative majority of our lifetimes.” She said the District Attorney’s Office had requested $999,999 bail for people facing at least one count of illegal gun possession nearly 900 times between late March and early August.

In any case, the suit does not revolve around criminal laws regarding guns. Instead, it lists several examples of restrictions that the city can’t impose without state approval, such as requiring a permit to purchase a firearm within the city, setting limits on how many guns someone can purchase within the city during a certain time period, or “disarming firearm owners who pose an extreme risk of physical harm to themselves or others but have not yet acted.”

Attorneys who filed the suit, including City Solicitor Marcell Pratt, argue that preemption, and the legislature’s efforts over the years to bolster it, “actively prevent an effective gun safety approach that would save the lives, property, and bodily integrity of Pennsylvania residents, particularly in low-income neighborhoods in the largest cities.”

The suit — filed against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the General Assembly, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, and Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph B. Scarnati III — includes details about the impact of gun violence on 10 people who lost a loved one.

Tamika Morales was one of them, and she spoke at the news conference. Her son, Ahmad, 24, was fatally shot on July 3 in Point Breeze in a case that remains unsolved.

Holding up a picture of her son, Morales said she supported any attempt to sensibly regulate firearms.

“I just don’t want this happening to another parent,” she said.

Philadelphia officials for years have attempted to overcome the legal hurdle of preemption, moving to ban assault-style weapons, limit handgun purchases, and prohibit guns in parks and at recreation centers.

Pittsburgh also recently attempted to write several local gun ordinances after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.

But none of those laws were adopted by the legislature, and courts have routinely held that preemption prohibits local jurisdictions from regulating the ownership, sale, or possession of firearms independently.

Pennsylvania is hardly the only state with preemption laws; more than 40 other states across the country have similar prohibitions on locally enacted gun ordinances, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy organization.

The National Rifle Association has helped stymie some attempts to overturn preemption. On its website, the organization said that previously passed local laws were “clearly unconstitutional” and that having different sets of laws within individual states creates confusion and risk for people who own and use guns legally.

Clarke said he did not believe the city’s requests to chart its own course on gun restrictions was unreasonable.

Councilperson Cindy Bass, meanwhile, said she believed state legislators needed to be reminded that the laws desired by local leaders were intended to protect residents of Pennsylvania’s largest city.

“The people who die in Philadelphia, lest you forget, they are Pennsylvanians,” Bass said.