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Why is it so hard for Philly to pass its own gun laws?

Local governments can't pass gun laws that are stricter than what is written in state gun laws.

Guns seized during an investigation displayed at a federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) press conference held on April 11, 2022.
Guns seized during an investigation displayed at a federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) press conference held on April 11, 2022.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Requiring people to report lost or stolen guns, banning assault weapons, and limiting the number of gun purchases per month. What do all of these have in common? They were proposed gun laws in Philadelphia that were blocked by state law.

Philadelphia is in the midst of a gun violence crisis that has been on the rise since 2020. Last year was the city’s most violent year ever. More than 560 people were killed in homicides — the majority by guns — and another 1,800 were wounded by bullets. The epidemic has continued at a troubling pace this year, with more than 440 people killed so far.

Leaders like Mayor Jim Kenney tried to pass local laws — like the executive order to ban all firearms and deadly weapons from Parks and Recreation facilities — but they were deemed unenforceable, as they have in all of their attempts to impose gun control measures in the city both this year and past years.

For decades, Philadelphia has been unable to pass local gun laws. A predicament that has embroiled the city and the state General Assembly into a years-long battle over one thing: state preemption law.

So, why is it so hard to pass gun laws in Philly? Let’s break it down.

What is preemption?

“Preemption” is a legal rule that states a higher authority’s law overrides a lower authority’s law.

In the case of gun laws in Pennsylvania, the state legislature explicitly wrote preemption into their Uniform Firearms Act. This means that local municipalities cannot enact gun laws that are stricter than what is allowed in state law. Here is the official language:

“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,” according to the state law.

This doesn’t just affect Pennsylvania either. More than 40 states across the country have preemption laws prohibiting local municipalities from enacting gun laws. In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia isn’t alone in trying to pass local gun laws — Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Philly suburbs like Lower Merion Township have had their proposed gun laws blocked by the courts, too.

What gun laws has Philly tried to pass?

The first instance of state law preempting a Philly gun law was in 1993 when then-Councilmember Angel Ortiz and Mayor Ed Rendell introduced a ban on assault-style weapons. State courts blocked the local gun law from being enforced in 1996, and the court’s opinion has been upheld ever since.

“Regulation of firearms is a matter of concern in all of Pennsylvania, not merely in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and the General Assembly, not city councils, is the proper forum for the imposition of such regulation,” according to the ruling opinion.

In 2007, Philadelphia City Council tried passing several gun laws during a time when Philly had one of the highest homicide rates in the country — which is still the case 15 years later.

At that time, the city tried to pass local ordinances that would:

  1. Limit gun purchases to one per month per person

  2. Require the reporting of lost or stolen guns to police

  3. Require a local license to buy or bring a gun into Philly, plus a yearly renewal of that license

  4. Allow police to confiscate guns from people posing a risk to others

  5. Ban assault weapons

  6. Require reporting of any sales of ammunition and the purchaser to police

  7. Ban “straw purchases,” where one person buys a gun for an ineligible person

These local ordinances were all blocked by state courts at the time. The city tried to appeal the rulings in 2008 and again in 2009 to no avail.

Since then, City Council tried to enforce a gun ban at city parks in 2019 that was struck down by courts. This led the City and other organizations to sue the state General Assembly over preemption in 2020 — a fight still wrapped up in the court system to this day.

Most recently, Mayor Kenney’s attempt at enacting a gun ban at city rec centers — which was the same as City Council’s 2019 gun ban — was struck down by courts for the same reason. At the time, the attorney representing the group, Gun Owners of America, that sued the city said, “The law in Pennsylvania couldn’t be clearer. No municipality — including Philadelphia — may regulate the lawful possession of firearms in any manner.”

Gun Owners of America who have sued the city before claim the city’s lawsuits “waste taxpayer money.

What would need to happen for Philly to be able to pass gun laws?

It’s an uphill battle — one that continues to be fought in the courts. Currently, the City of Philadelphia, along with gun violence prevention nonprofit CeaseFirePA, and family members of gun violence victims from Philly and Pittsburgh, are suing the state legislature and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania over preemption law.

At the time of filing the lawsuit in 2020, Stanley Crawford, the father of William A. Crawford, 35, who was shot and killed in Philadelphia in 2018 explained why preemption impacts the city directly.

“Letting Philadelphia pass gun safety laws is about recognizing the humanity of people in this city who face gun violence,” Crawford said at a 2020 press conference. “Because right now, the lack of action and the lack of urgency is absolutely inhumane.”

In May of this year, state courts again upheld that local governments can’t pass their own gun laws. However, earlier this month the cohort suing the state appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court. According to CeaseFirePA’s executive director, Adam Garber, there are two paths he sees Philadelphia taking in order to pass its own gun laws.

First, the City of Philadelphia and CeaseFirePA would have to win their lawsuits in court against preemption laws, Garber said (which is a difficult battle). If they win and the courts rule that local municipalities can enforce their own gun laws, that would open the door for possible legislation. For instance, laws that would require people to get a permit before they can buy a gun — which studies have shown reduces gun deaths, Garber said.

Second, there are gaps in the state gun law. It doesn’t cover every situation that involves a gun. For example, state law explicitly uses the wording, “lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components when carried or transported.” Nowhere in that law does it speak about lost or stolen firearms, which is a law that Philadelphia has been trying to pass for decades — requiring gun owners to report to the police if their gun was lost or stolen.

“Because [in those cases], you don’t own that firearm, you didn’t intentionally transfer it, and you don’t possess it anymore,” Garber said.

No matter what path the city takes, issues around preemption won’t be quickly resolved. Legal matters take time. So until those lawsuits are won, or the state legislature decides to change the law to allow for local gun ordinances, Philadelphia and other local municipalities across the state will not be enacting new gun laws any time soon.