Several dozen gun-rights supporters peacefully descended on a Lower Merion park Sunday afternoon, where they protested a local gun ordinance and called on the district attorney to take legal action against the township.
The township rule does not allow the carrying and firing of guns in public parks except by police officers and exempted parties. The latter includes anyone with a permit to carry a concealed weapon or anyone legally carrying an unconcealed weapon.
Although the rule does not ban legal guns from parks, rally organizers say the ordinance is illegal under Pennsylvania law, which gives the state jurisdiction over firearms regulations.
About 80 people carried signs, American flags, and firearms as they listened to speeches in Bala Cynwyd Park on the cold afternoon.
"We're all here because we believe that real patriotism is a willingness to challenge the government when it's wrong," said speaker Steve Piotrowski of Citizens for Liberty.
Joshua Prince, a lawyer, told the crowd Lower Merion would be sued and asked Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman to bring legal action against all involved.
Two Lower Merion commissioners who attended said the township was not concerned about a lawsuit. The protest did not represent the view of most residents, they said.
"For all intents and purposes, this is an armed occupation here today," said Township Commissioner Brian McGuire, who supports the ordinance and who attended the rally to talk to constituents.
The rally kicked off with the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence for Philadelphia Police Officer Robert Wilson III, who was killed in the line of duty March 5 when robbers invaded a video game store.
The rally, billed as family-friendly, sought to draw gun-rights supporters from across the state. Organizers said Thursday they expected between 280 and 480 to turn out, but the crowd Sunday was substantially smaller.
Gun-control supporters argue that Lower Merion's rule does not fall into any of the categories regulated by state law.
Many localities have repealed their gun regulations after a bill passed last year strengthened state preemption of municipal gun ordinances.
The law, known as Act 192, broadly defines people who can sue localities over firearms rules to include most state residents and organizations, who do not have to prove they have been personally harmed by the ordinance in question.
Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Lancaster all left some ordinances on the books and were sued by the National Rifle Association in January.
With a group of state legislators, the cities have brought a separate case against the commonwealth, alleging that procedural maneuvers used to pass the bill were unconstitutional.
Gun-control advocates think the effort in Lower Merion is part of an attempt by gun-rights supporters to get townships to rescind their ordinances before the court rules on the law, said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA.
"We believe that the law will be thrown out, so we don't feel threatened by a lawsuit," McGuire said.
As the national battle over guns has shifted largely to the states, questions like these have become key parts of the debate.
Almost every state has some form of preemption, according to a 2014 analysis by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program. But Pennsylvania's law has drawn national attention from gun-rights and gun-control groups alike. The NRA called it the strongest statute in the country.
On Sunday, the gun-rights demonstrators' presence went unchallenged, though one person shouted, "Unpatriotic" from the other side of the park, and organizers said they found nails in the street near parked cars.
Citing nearby crime, supporters said creating gun-free zones in places like public parks keeps people from being able to protect their children.
"If I was sitting on a bench in the park and somebody tried to grab my grandchildren . . . if I did not have a gun [the children] would be gone," said Jane Taylor Toal of Citizens for Liberty.
Opponents said there was no reason to have guns in parks.
"This is not an issue regarding the Second Amendment," said Commissioner Dan Burnheim. "This is much more myopic. It is [about] having guns where our children are playing."