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Across Pa., cities at odds with NRA

Nine months ago, a group of Pennsylvania mayors gathered in Reading to announce a new strategy in the war against gun violence: They urged municipalities to enact their own gun-control ordinances.

Nine months ago, a group of Pennsylvania mayors gathered in Reading to announce a new strategy in the war against gun violence: They urged municipalities to enact their own gun-control ordinances.

Frustrated by the General Assembly's failure to enact what they described as "commonsense gun laws," the mayors pledged to follow Philadelphia and push for local laws requiring owners to report lost or stolen guns.

On Tuesday, Lancaster became the eighth municipality to pass such an ordinance, joining Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Reading, Harrisburg, Pottsville, and Wilkinsburg.

"It was time to make a statement," Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray said after the council's unanimous decision.

The coalition's goal puts the municipalities at odds with the powerful National Rifle Association, which has followed through on its vow to sue Pennsylvania cities that approve what it called illegal gun laws.

Gray and Reading Mayor Thomas McMahon, a state leader of the national Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said they were tired of going to funerals of children caught in the crossfire of gang wars or drugs deals gone bad.

"The mayors said, 'Enough is enough,' " said McMahon, who asked other mayors to sign a pledge to support legislation to combat illegal gun sales. So far, 83 have signed.

The tipping point for Gray was last month during a viewing for a 9-year-old Lancaster girl slain in a drive-by shooting in York, Pa.

"We have to do something about gun violence," he said. "Obviously, the General Assembly cowers at even taking minor steps."

The law, which can vary by community, aims to curb illegal gun sales, or so-called straw purchases, by not allowing legal buyers who sell guns to felons to claim that their guns were lost or stolen when the firearms turn up at crime scenes.

The mayors launched their city-to-city campaign after a year of advocacy in Harrisburg failed to sway the legislature on the reporting proposal, which made it to a floor vote in the House. Lawmakers rejected the measure by 53 votes; supporters say they hope to introduce a similar bill in the fall.

The NRA has argued that local ordinances would threaten innocent gun owners who may not be aware their weapons are missing and who would face penalties for not reporting the losses.

"I don't know of any law that criminalizes victims of crime," said John Hohenwarter, the NRA's lobbyist in Pennsylvania. "These ordinances do that."

Supporters of the ordinance counter that it would allow a reasonable reporting time after owners discovered guns were missing.

Chad Ramsey, senior associate director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, based in Washington, said he believed the Pennsylvania mayors' efforts were the first in the country.

"We've never seen anything quite like this," he said. "Mayors see it as a personal affront from the NRA and the gun lobby that they are not allowed to set their own laws that deal with guns at the local level."

Ramsey said his organization offered to defend any municipality free of charge against an NRA lawsuit.

The first to accept the offer was Pittsburgh, which passed its ordinance in December. The NRA sued, arguing that the state firearms code prohibits the city from passing gun laws.

"The state law clearly preempts regulation of firearms and ammunition," Hohenwarter said. "Just because they lose the debate in Harrisburg doesn't mean they have the right to pass ordinances."

The NRA also is battling Philadelphia over several gun laws, including a reporting requirement, enacted in the last two years.

The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas ruled in the city's favor in the fall on the reporting requirement for lost and stolen guns, saying the NRA and its plaintiffs lacked standing because they were not affected or likely to be affected by the ordinance. That case has been appealed to Commonwealth Court.

The city argued that requiring someone to report a missing gun does not infringe on the right to own one.

"The state preemption only prohibits laws which limit ownership, possession, and transportation and purchase. This ordinance doesn't limit the right to own, possess, or purchase a firearm in any way," said Richard Feder, the city's chief deputy for appeals and legislation.

A Philadelphia Police Department spokeswoman said that residents were reporting their stolen guns as required and that no one had yet been arrested for false reporting.

David Kairys, a professor of constitutional law at Temple University, said cases challenging local gun ordinances could have far-reaching implications for home rule in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

He said the state Supreme Court had "gutted home rule" in Philadelphia with decisions such as the 1996 overturning of a ban on assault weapons. But Kairys said communities recognized that crime and safety were local issues and they wanted to make their own decisions about how to protect residents.

"They're doing their duty, saying in order to have law and order we have to get guns off the street and restore local authority," Kairys said.

That was what Jason Cohn was thinking when he voted yes this month to the lost-and-stolen ordinance in Wilkinsburg, population 19,000, just outside Pittsburgh.

Cohn, a 12-year resident of the borough, said his community was horrified last year when 12-year-old Kholen Germany was caught in a gun battle on a downtown street.

"For our size, we have a higher violent-crime rate than we should," Cohn said. "We viewed this as a simple way to close a big loophole that criminals use."

Local leaders concede it will be difficult to prosecute cases involving fraudulent reporting because of jurisdictional boundaries, but they feel their action sends a strong message to potential offenders and to lawmakers in Harrisburg.

"For the cities that are passing these ordinances, this is a cry for help to the state legislature to please begin to address these issues," Gray said. "Talk to the little girl's mother who was killed in York: What good is prosecution? We should try to keep the wrong people from possessing guns in the first place."