Two key provisions of Philadelphia's latest attempt to impose local gun controls - banning assault weapons and "straw purchases" of handguns - were invalidated yesterday by a state appeals court.
Following judicial precedent that doomed previous Philadelphia gun-control laws, Commonwealth Court held that the state Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that only the legislature has the authority to enact gun laws. Counties and municipal governments are out of luck.
But the 6-1 majority in Commonwealth Court affirmed part of the 2008 decision of then-Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Jane Cutler Greenspan and allowed three other provisions. They require reporting lost or stolen handguns, allow temporary seizure of guns by police after probable cause is demonstrated, and bar gun ownership by people subject to protection-from-abuse orders.
Greenspan, now on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, had ruled that the National Rifle Association and other challengers were not affected seriously enough to have legal standing to sue over those provisions.
The reporting provision is in effect, but the other two have not yet been implemented because they are legally complex and require the city to draft and adopt regulations, said Richard Feder, chief of appeals in the city Law Department
Feder said his office was "seriously considering" appealing the assault-weapon and straw-purchase provisions to the state Supreme Court.
In invalidating them, Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, the president judge of Commonwealth Court, called the 1996 Supreme Court precedent "crystal clear."
Judge Doris Smith-Ribner wrote separately, concurring with and dissenting from the majority.
She wrote that she did not believe the Supreme Court had totally barred local gun control and said a case could be made for provisions of the Philadelphia ordinance regulating assault weapons and straw purchases - the buying of guns for others who are not legally permitted to own firearms.
Both judges acknowledged the frustration of public officials trying to deal with the "unfortunate and tragic proliferation of gun crimes in the city."
The five city regulations enacted in April 2008, were immediately challenged in court by the NRA, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the Pennsylvania Association of Firearms Retailers, two local firearms retailers, and four individuals.
Joseph Grace, executive director of the gun-control group CeaseFire PA, called the Commonwealth Court decision "significant."
He noted that the city's lost-or-stolen reporting ordinance is now the only one in Pennsylvania that has passed court muster - despite a failure to enact a similar law last year in the legislature.
"This decision simply puts the ball back where it should be - in the General Assembly," Grace said. "Cities and mayors have been taking action in the absence of any action from the General Assembly."
"The bottom line is we won," NRA attorney C. Scott Shields said. "Now the Supreme Court is going to have to weigh in on it."
Since Philadelphia passed its gun controls, Grace said, six Pennsylvania cities and one borough have enacted ordinances requiring the reporting of lost or stolen handguns: Allentown, Reading, Pottsville, Pittsburgh, Lancaster, Harrisburg, and Wilkinsburg Borough in Allegheny County.
All are covered by the Commonwealth Court's ruling on the Philadelphia reporting law, Grace said.
The NRA has challenged the Pittsburgh ordinance in Allegheny County Court, Grace said.