A Philadelphia judge appeared poised yesterday to grant the National Rifle Association's request to block enforcement of recently enacted city gun laws, with a final decision almost certainly headed for the state's high court.
Previous rulings by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court established "that the state regulates firearms, not the city," Common Pleas Court Judge Jane Cutler Greenspan told city attorneys during a hearing yesterday.
Mayor Nutter and City Council staked their positions in April by drafting five new laws that limit handgun purchases to one a month; ban certain assault weapons; require the reporting of lost or stolen firearms; prohibit gun possession for people subject to protection-from-abuse orders; and allow removal of guns from "persons posing a risk of imminent personal injury" to themselves or others.
The NRA, two city gun shops, and others obtained a temporary restraining order a week after Nutter signed the laws, and yesterday's hearing was to determine whether Greenspan would grant a permanent injunction.
While court was in session, a dozen members of X-Offenders for Community Empowerment chanted anti-NRA slogans outside the courtroom.
The group's executive director, Wayne Jacobs, said its members, many former criminals convicted of gun-related crimes, are focused on the lost-and-stolen legislation because it would prevent "straw" purchasers from buying guns for others, then escaping prosecution by saying they lost them.
Ruth Hayes was there still mourning the 2007 slaying of her daughter, Ruth Angel Hayes, who was shot seven times by an ex-boyfriend. He is awaiting trial.
"I don't know much about guns," she said outside the court, "but I know they're not just for everybody."
Greenspan said she would take briefs from both sides this morning, with final arguments today at 2 p.m.
On Friday, Greenspan issued an order that excluded most of the evidence the city hoped to present over two days of testimony. She cited the 1996 Supreme Court ruling establishing the state's preeminence in regulating firearms.
Susan Burke, the city's outside counsel on the case, persuaded the judge to allow her to summarize witness testimony so that higher courts would have evidence to consider on appeal. The witness list includes Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey; emergency room experts from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania; and Joseph Vince, retired former chief of the Crime Gun Analysis branch of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"It makes no sense for you to make an important decision on preemption without allowing the record to be built," Burke said.
That record may be as critical to the public relations campaign as to the court case, as city leaders try to reverse a string of losses in the courts and the legislature.
"I think the whole purpose of this is political in nature," said Jon S. Mirowitz, a lawyer and board member of Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania. Mirowitz is one of the plaintiffs seeking a permanent injunction against the city laws.
Local lawmakers have waged a three-pronged offensive on gun control. The effort includes the package of five laws; a lawsuit filed by City Council members Darrell L. Clarke and Donna Reed Miller against the state; and a push in the legislature to require the reporting of lost and stolen handguns.
The suit by Clarke and Miller, filed in Commonwealth Court, seeks to allow the city to enforce its own gun laws. Commonwealth Court judges have voiced skepticism similar to Greenspan's. That case is also expected to end up in the Supreme Court, regardless of the outcome.
C. Scott Shields, attorney for the NRA, said city officials "want a handful of judges to usurp the power of the General Assembly."
State legislators from Philadelphia recently pushed for a House vote on a one-gun-a-month bill. The bill was defeated, but the fact that it was called up for a vote was considered progress by gun-control activists.