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Council loses gun law skirmish in state court

Philadelphia yesterday lost another battle but vowed to continue its war - in court and in politics - to pass local legislation to regulate the sale of handguns.

Philadelphia yesterday lost another battle but vowed to continue its war - in court and in politics - to pass local legislation to regulate the sale of handguns.

The state Commonwealth Court struck down a lawsuit filed last year by City Council members Darrell Clarke and Donna Reed Miller against the state General Assembly for not passing enabling legislation to allow a package of gun-control laws to be enforced in the city.

The court rejected Council's argument that the state's Uniform Firearms Act does not preempt local control over guns.

"While we understand the terrible problems gun violence poses for the city and sympathize with its efforts to use police powers to create a safe environment for its citizens, these practical considerations do not alter the clear pre-emption imposed by the legislature, nor our Supreme Court's validation of the legislature's power to act," the ruling said.

That's a reference to the state Supreme Court's 1996 ruling that overturned a Philadelphia ban on owning assault rifles.

The local laws would have limited purchases of handguns to one per month, required gun owners to report lost or stolen guns to police, required a police-issued annual license to bring a gun into the city, allowed police to confiscate guns from people considered a risk to themselves or others, banned semiautomatic weapons with clips that hold more than 10 rounds and established a registry of ammunition sales.

City Council members and Mayor Nutter have been angling for a chance to challenge the 1996 Supreme Court ruling. In responding yesterday, it became clear that Council will continue with legal challenges while the mayor will turn up the political heat.

Nutter gathered reporters to express his disappointment, especially since the ruling comes at the end of a week in which a Philadelphia police officer was shot to death by a convicted felon.

Nutter made his case in stark terms, saying the General Assembly must now decide if it wants to side with cops or criminals when it comes to gun control.

"That's where our focus ultimately has to be," Nutter said of Harrisburg. "People have to make a decision as to what side of the issue you're going to be on."

Council members will press on with the legal challenge. Yesterday's ruling will be reviewed by the state Supreme Court.

"I think [the 1996 ruling] is dead in our crosshairs and we have a good bead on it," said George Bochetto, the attorney who represents Clarke and Miller.

Council passed many of the same gun-control laws this year that formed the basis for the lawsuit ruled on yesterday. This year's gun-control laws, however, did not cite the need for matching state legislation so they could be enforced by the city.

Clarke and Miller again sued the state this year, seeking the right to pass local gun-control laws. That case is still pending in the Commonwealth Court.

A Common Pleas Court judge in June struck down two of the five new control laws after a legal challenge by the National Rifle Association. That case is also pending in the Superior Court, with both sides appealing. *