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Officials irked about state bill that could eliminate local gun laws

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania House's passage Monday of a controversial bill granting legal standing to the National Rifle Association to sue over local gun laws has put dozens of municipalities on notice.

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania House's passage Monday of a controversial bill granting legal standing to the National Rifle Association to sue over local gun laws has put dozens of municipalities on notice.

The implicit threat of the legislation, which Gov. Corbett has indicated he will sign, is: Repeal your gun ordinances or risk costly lawsuits.

Word of the bill's approval in the final hour of the legislative session drew strong reaction from all corners of the southeastern part of the state.

Law enforcement and government officials implored Corbett to veto the bill, saying the proposal was bad legislation that would open the floodgates to lawsuits that threaten self-rule, and could bankrupt smaller townships and boroughs.

"Cities across this commonwealth enact gun regulations in an effort to save lives, period," said Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke. "To meet such efforts with the threat of costly and frivolous litigation by special interests is heartless at best."

Philadelphia is one of roughly 30 municipalities that have enacted local gun laws - most involving mandatory reporting of lost and stolen guns - in the six years since an effort to pass statewide gun control laws failed.

The legislation, amended to a bill involving the theft of metal, would broaden the definition of "standing" to include "membership organizations" such as the NRA.

It also would award plaintiff's legal fees and loss of income, something legal experts have said was an extraordinary provision.

Supporters of the bill said the state constitution already establishes that firearms laws must be uniform, that changes are to be made by the General Assembly, and that existing local laws are not constitutional.

"We can't have a crazy quilt of laws," said Rep. Jeff Pyle (R., Armstrong).

A high-ranking Philadelphia aide told The Inquirer that the city would not back down on its authority to regulate firearms within its borders.

But Montgomery County Solicitor Sean Kilkenny said he would recommend to Norristown, Jenkintown, and Whitemarsh that they immediately repeal their lost and stolen gun ordinances.

"As a lawyer, we have to advise our clients, and we have to be a little cautious," he said Tuesday. "If a town like Jenkintown gets sued, a couple hundred thousand dollars would blow a huge hole in their budget."

A 2008 lawsuit brought by the NRA over Philadelphia's gun laws led to several measures being struck down. But the group was denied standing on the lost and stolen ordinance, which remains intact.

Police and antigun violence groups maintain that reporting lost and stolen firearms helps curb gun trafficking by felons who use individuals with clean records to purchase weapons.

When those guns turn up at crime scenes, law enforcement officials say, the purchaser denies culpability by claiming the gun is lost or stolen.

In a statement Tuesday, the NRA's national lobbying arm hailed the legislation, saying it will strengthen the state firearms preemption statute and ensure firearms laws are "consistent throughout Pennsylvania."

It said that once signed, the law will allow "gun owners to hold these municipalities responsible for infringing on our Second Amendment rights."

John Hohenwater, the NRA's Pennsylvania lobbyist, said his group has no lawsuits prepared to file, but issued a clear warning to municipalities.

"We hope towns will do the right thing and get these laws off the books, so we don't have to litigate," he said.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said communities "should have the ability to pass some legislation that is in the best interests of their residents."

"We know the NRA is an incredibly strong lobby, and they have an influence on the legislature. This is one more example of it," he said.

Clarke called it "a sick irony" that communities facing gun violence would have to pay the very organizations "responsible for the free flow of deadly weapons in our country."

Cheltenham Police Chief John Norris said he was disappointed by the bill and added that a lawsuit over the township's stolen firearms ordinance "would really be a financial hardship."

"It's common sense to report a gun lost or stolen," he said. "I can't see why it hurts the NRA or anyone else."

William Caldwell, president of the Norristown Municipal Council, expected that the council would drop the law.

"It's not worth the tax money to litigate, frankly," he said, noting that crime has declined in Norristown in recent years.

In Plymouth Township, which passed a lost and stolen ordinance in 2010, Police Chief Joseph Lawrence said he did not think it had made much difference.

Anyone who owns a gun legally, Lawrence said, would report it being stolen because "it's not only a weapon, it's a thing of value."

And people who don't own guns legally aren't likely to care about breaking another law, he said.


These towns and municipalities in Southeastern Pa. have adopted local ordinances mandating that owners let the police know if their guns have been lost or stolen:





Hatfield Township




Plymouth Township

Whitemarsh Township

SOURCE: CeaseFire Pa.EndText