ON APRIL 10, Mayor Nutter signed five gun bills. They would limit gun purchases to one per month, make it crime to not report a lost or stolen gun within 48 hours, ban semi-automatic weapons with clips that hold more than 10 rounds, and allow police to take guns from people considered a danger to themselves and others.
They are good measures on their face.
But they are illegal, since the city doesn't have the right to make its own gun laws. So, in effect, the mayor signed them as a stunt, to bring attention to the constant conflict between the city's need to curb an out-of-control gun problem and state lawmakers' refusal to see the city and its problems as distinct from the rest of the state.
Stunts aren't all bad. They can bring attention to an issue - in this case, the city's frustration at the easy access to handguns and the homicides they cause. But they can be dangerous as well. For example, the speed with which District Attorney Lynne Abraham said she wouldn't enforce these laws created a problem for the mayor: Should the elected leader of a city condone illegal behavior? On the other hand, doesn't his action effectively signal that he has few options left, and that Harrisburg should pay attention?
It's hard to give Nutter's stunt a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, because whether his action has a good outcome remains to be seen.
Which suggests an even more complicated question: What outcome can actually come from this? Will Harrisburg surrender and grant the city the right to make its own laws? Not only is this unlikely, it's not even up to the General Assembly. It's up to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in 1996 that the Legislature could prevent municipalities from creating their own gun laws.
In 1993, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh passed assault-weapon bans in their city. Indignant, the Legislature in 1994 took a proposed law about liquor and, after eight amendments, turned it into the gun law pre-emption bill. Gov. Bob Casey vetoed it, saying the two big cities needed gun control to "deal with the unique situation of escalating random urban violence." But the Legislature, in a rare occurrence, overrode Casey's veto.
Fast-forward to April 7: A package of gun laws that the House passed, and that awaits Senate approval, failed to include an amendment for reporting lost or stolen guns, but does call for increasing the statute of limitations for prosecuting straw purchasers and complicit gun dealers and creating a registry of lost or stolen weapons. Their passage could mean that anti-gun-control climate may be changing a little.
But "gun fatigue" has set in, and it's unlikely any new gun bills will be brought up in Harrisburg this legislative session.
However, this represents a moment that Nutter could use to his advantage: exploit the political goodwill he has been forging in Harrisburg to help change the conversation about guns and find solutions. Face it: If anything substantial is going to change about the city's ability to make gun laws, it will require a civil sit-down between Nutter and state leaders - something House Speaker Dennis O'Brien, who once kept gun legislation safely tucked away in the Judiciary Committee he once chaired - told this editorial board he's willing to do.
Nutter was smart enough to build bridges with Harrisburg before he took office. We believe he's smart enough to spark a more productive conversation with state lawmakers, and get them to see it's in their interest to help the city grapple with our gun problem.