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Judge bars Philadelphia from enforcing Mayor Jim Kenney’s ban on guns at rec centers and playgrounds

The lawsuit cited a Pennsylvania state law that prohibits the any city or county from passing gun-control measures stricter than state gun laws.

Mayor Jim Kenney take questions from the media on Sept. 27, after signing an executive order on banning guns and other deadly weapons from city recreation facilities, including rec center buildings, athletic courts, fields, playgrounds, and pools.
Mayor Jim Kenney take questions from the media on Sept. 27, after signing an executive order on banning guns and other deadly weapons from city recreation facilities, including rec center buildings, athletic courts, fields, playgrounds, and pools.Read moreJose F. Moreno / Staff Photographer

A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge on Monday blocked the city from enforcing an executive order Mayor Jim Kenney signed last week banning guns at recreation centers and playgrounds following the fatal shooting of a Parks and Recreation employee last month.

The Gun Owners of America, on behalf of several state residents, filed a lawsuit last Tuesday, the day Kenney signed his order. After hearing arguments Friday, Judge Joshua H. Roberts issued his ruling siding with the plaintiffs and ordering Philadelphia to be “permanently enjoined” from enforcing Kenney’s ban.

The lawsuit cited Pennsylvania state law that prohibits any city or county from passing gun-control measures. The preemption law, which the city has repeatedly sought to overturn, bans local government from passing gun-control measures that are stricter than state gun laws.

Andrew B. Austin, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said in an emailed statement: “For my part, I am gratified that the Court of Common Pleas was able to so quickly resolve this suit, but that was in large part because the law is so explicit: The City is not allowed to regulate possession of firearms in any manner.”

Austin added: “It is unfortunate that the mayor and city are willing to waste their time and taxpayer money on these type of ‘feel-good’ measures. This was nothing more than a press release, and would not have — in any way — addressed the crisis of crime in our City.”

» READ MORE: Parks and Recreation worker killed by stray bullet in West Philadelphia

Kevin Lessard, a spokesperson for Kenney, said in an emailed statement: “We are reviewing today’s decision and are disappointed by the outcome, which as it stands prevents city employees from making the reasonable request that anyone with a firearm or deadly weapon leave a recreation facility. Since 2019, nearly 300 reported incidents of gun violence have occurred at city recreation facilities, in addition to dozens of other incidents of violence with a deadly weapon.”

Lessard continued: “The mayor’s executive order was intended to prevent the senseless violence that is interfering with the safety of children, families and staff in what must be safe places.”

In 1996, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state legislature has the authority to preempt local gun-control laws. That has not stopped Philadelphia from repeatedly challenging the law as the city faces a surge in gun violence. Kenney and other officials have often pointed to the state preemption law as a roadblock to reducing gun violence — and did so last week, when a 14-year-old boy was killed and four others wounded in a shooting after a high school football scrimmage in Roxborough. That shooting happened hours after Kenney signed the executive order.

» READ MORE: Your questions about the Roxborough shooting, Philly’s gun ban and safety procedures, answered

In February, Commonwealth Court ruled against a Philadelphia ordinance that required gun owners to tell police when a firearm had been lost or stolen.

Philadelphia appealed that decision and the case is pending before the state’s high court.

Kenney’s executive order came several weeks after Tiffany Fletcher was fatally struck by a stray bullet from a nearby shooting while working at the Mill Creek Recreation Center.

The order was signed a day after Fletcher’s funeral. A 14-year-old boy has been charged with murder in the case.

Val W. Finnell, Pennsylvania director of Gun Owners of America, said Kenney’s order was “posturing” because Philadelphia has been unsuccessful in challenging the preemption law.

While Roberts in his ruling Monday said his decision was based “purely on legal questions,” he also quoted two opinions strongly suggesting that the 1996 State Supreme Court decision needs to be revisited. Robert wrote that he “shares, echoes, and amplifies the sentiments” contained in the quoted opinions.

In his 1996 dissent of Ortiz v. Commonwealth, then-Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro wrote that “it is fundamentally essential that the local government enact legislation to protect its citizens whenever the state legislature is unable or unwilling to do so.”

And Commonwealth Court President Judge Emerita Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter wrote that because of the “overwhelming blight of gun violence” in Philadelphia, “local conditions may well justify more severe restrictions than are necessary statewide.”

Leadbetter said that when a child cannot leave his home to walk to the corner of his street without risk of being caught in a cross fire, “we are denying him the most fundamental right, that of life and liberty, and so I would urge our Supreme Court to reconsider the breadth of the Ortiz doctrine and allow local restrictions narrowly tailored to local necessities.”

Roberts, ruling on Kenney’s most recent executive order, wrote that “while this court could wax poetic regarding the need for our Supreme Court to revisit Ortiz and/or for the legislature to allow the city of Philadelphia to regulate firearms to combat the plague of gun violence, Judge Leadbetter and Justice Nigro summed up the issues succinctly and appropriately.”