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Jim Kenney signs exec order to ban guns at Philly rec centers, a move that could spur legal challenges

The move could reignite a long-standing debate about whether the city should be able to write its own gun laws.

Mayor Jim Kenney take questions from reporters Tuesday after signing an executive order 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 reporters Tuesday after signing an executive order 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

Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order Tuesday banning the possession of firearms and other deadly weapons at city recreation centers and playgrounds, a move that could reignite a long-standing debate about whether the city should be able to write its own gun laws.

The action came weeks after Tiffany Fletcher was fatally struck by a stray bullet from a nearby shooting while working at the Mill Creek rec center. Kenney, speaking at a news conference after signing the order, choked up while describing how Parks and Recreation employees on Monday lined the street outside Fletcher’s funeral in a fashion that resembled police officers or firefighters honoring a fallen colleague.

“This gives them some protection, some peace of mind, some ability to call the authorities when some knucklehead decides they want to bring a gun into a rec center and they see it, that’s part of what this is about,” Kenney said.

Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, said there have been nearly 300 incidents of gun violence at city recreation facilities since 2019, adding: “How can we support and uplift the children of our city when our own recreation facilities are so often under fire?”

The order bans guns and other deadly weapons at rec center buildings, athletic courts, fields, playgrounds, and pools. Signs about the prohibition will be displayed at the facilities, the order says, and District Attorney Larry Krasner said his office could charge those in violation with trespassing — even if they are otherwise legally permitted to carry the gun in the city.

“This is something that is necessary. I’m glad the mayor is doing it,” Krasner said. He added that his office had recently charged a 23-year-old with shooting another man during an August basketball game at Kensington’s McVeigh Recreation Center, saying: “This is what happens when we have guns everywhere.”

The order resembles a similar measure passed by City Council several years ago. City officials, without offering details, said they believed the executive order was “slightly different” because the city was taking the action as the facilities’ property owner.

It remained unclear Tuesday if or how the ordinance might be challenged in court. Past attempts have faced legal barriers — ones city officials have been attempting to overturn for years.

The main hurdle is known as preemption, a concept that prohibits municipalities from creating and enforcing local gun laws. Dozens of other states have similar prohibitions, and in Pennsylvania, courts have cited preemption while consistently striking down attempts by cities, including Philadelphia, to ban assault-style weapons, limit handgun purchases, and prohibit guns in parks and at recreation centers.

“No county, municipality, or township may in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer, or transportation of firearms, ammunition, or ammunition components when carried or transported for purposes not prohibited by the laws of this commonwealth,” state law says.

The National Rifle Association has helped block some attempts to overturn preemption, previously calling some local laws “clearly unconstitutional” while arguing that different sets of rules within individual states can create confusion and risk for people who own and use guns legally.

Lars Dalseide, an NRA spokesperson, said Tuesday that Kenney’s order was “illegitimate,” though he declined to say if the organization would challenge it in court.

“The simple fact is that Pennsylvania state law prevents local jurisdictions from passing laws that are inconsistent with or more restrictive than state law,” Dalseide said.

Krasner said of a potential court battle with the NRA: “Bring it on.”

“There is no organization in American history that has done more to facilitate crime with guns than the NRA,” he said.

Kenney, meanwhile, said he wished he could take more action, calling the state’s gun laws — and the ease of accessing firearms — “literally insane.”

“I would get every gun off the street and every gun shop should be closed,” Kenney said. He mentioned one report that said 15,000 crime guns were traced to nine local gun shops and said: “Is that what the Second Amendment … [what] our forefathers thought they were doing when they protected a single-shot, muzzle-loading long gun in order to fight the British? I don’t think so.”

In an attempt to overturn preemption, the city in 2020 sued the state, with Kenney saying at the time that the concept “handcuffs” local governments from taking measures to protect residents.

In the lawsuit — which remains pending — the city listed several laws it would enact if given the legal standing to do so. Among them: banning guns at parks and recreation centers.

While local gun laws have faced legal challenges, statewide efforts have faced political obstacles. To the frustration of many Philadelphia Democrats, the Republican majority in the state House and Senate in recent years has stalled or not acted on several gun safety proposals, even as the city’s violence has reached record levels.

Republicans have often responded by criticizing Philadelphia Democrats — especially Krasner, the subject of a GOP-led impeachment inquiry — over what they say is lax enforcement of existing gun laws. Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson for state House Republicans, said Tuesday that city officials were “trying to criminalize legal conduct while failing to fully enforce the tough-on-crime laws we already have on the books.

“City leaders would be better spending their time prioritizing the safety of Philadelphians over their quest for implementing far-left social experiments and attempting to create new criminal conduct on law abiding Pennsylvanians,” he said.

The executive order came on the same day that City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas released a separate set of recommendations to curb gun violence, including proposed investments in surveillance cameras, blight removal, and victim and witness protection.

“What we’re really trying to do is offer solutions for right now,” said Thomas, adding that he wants the money to be distributed in a midyear transfer before next year’s budget cycle. Thomas was joined by several Council colleagues at a morning news conference unveiling his report.

Kenney said of the state lawmakers who have failed to act in the face of tragedies like the death of Fletcher: “That’s the sin they’re going to have to speak to when they pass to go up to see God, because it’s ridiculous.”

And asked if he expects his executive order to face legal challenges, he said he did, but added: “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

Staff writer Ellie Rushing contributed to this article.