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Pa. Supreme Court opens new path to challenge local gun restrictions

A new ruling allows anyone to challenge local gun restriction ordinances.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — According to a new ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, anyone can sue to challenge city laws, even if they don’t live there and haven’t been charged with violating them.

The lawsuit specifically pertains to Harrisburg’s gun ordinances. But the 4-3 ruling could bring about dozens of lawsuits in cities throughout the state.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, one of the defendants named in the suit, decried the ruling and said it would force Harrisburg to continue paying legal fees to defend its gun ordinances. The city has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal costs in this battle, Papenfuse said.

“This is a boon for the gun lobby and for lawyers who are going to make more money than ever suing municipalities but it's a really bad deal for the residents of Harrisburg and the citizens of this Commonwealth,” he said.

At issue are five ordinances passed between 1821 and 2009:

  • 1821: “Discharge Ordinance”
    • Firearms can only be discharged in educational shooting ranges
  • 1905: “Parks Ordinance”
    • Firearms cannot be taken into or discharged in city parks
  • 1951: “Minors Ordinance”
    • Unaccompanied minors under the age of 18 can’t carry a gun outside their home
  • 1969: “State of Emergency Ordinance”
    • Firearms and ammunition cannot be sold, transferred or purchased during periods of emergency declaration
    • The mayor can ban weapons—including firearms—in public during periods of emergency declaration
  • 2009: “Lost/Stolen Ordinance”
    • Firearm owners must report lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement within 48 hours of the discovery of the loss or theft

The “Lost/Stolen Ordinance” has helped Harrisburg law enforcement track 139 straw purchases since April.

Gun control advocates say cities seeking to curb gun violence need the freedom to craft innovative solutions.

“I think there’s a glaring inconsistency in that when a conservative ideal is ‘local control to solve local problems,’ who is better to know how to address gun violence in a community than elected leaders of that community?” said Josh Fleitman, western Pennsylvania manager for gun control group Ceasefire PA.

But gun rights advocates say even if there’s good intent behind the ordinances, Mayor Papenfuse doesn’t have the right to enforce them.

“Constitutionally speaking they are repugnant, ethically speaking they fail, and legally speaking he has no authority to do this,” said Kim Stolfer, president of gun rights group Firearms Owners Against Crime (FOAC).

The suit will now likely head to a lower court, where each challenged ordinance will be judged on its merits.

Republican state lawmakers are also working to curb gun restrictions. The Pennsylvania Senate is soon expected to vote on a bill that would ban local governments from passing any gun laws stricter than the state’s.

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