Pennsylvania Law Allows NRA To Sue Cities Over Gun Rules

Jan 31, 2015
Originally published on January 31, 2015 1:20 pm
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A new Pennsylvania law allows membership groups like the National Rifle Association to sue municipalities over local gun ordinances. Kate Lao Shaffner reports the NRA has already filed suit against three Pennsylvania cities claiming their gun laws are illegal.

KATE LAO SHAFFNER, BYLINE: Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto says the city consulted legal experts before passing its 2008 lost or stolen gun ordinance - one of the laws the NRA is suing to overturn.

MAYOR BILL PEDUTO: We're not taking away anyone's right to own a gun. We're not taking away anyone's right to own 10 guns. What we're doing is saying is when it's lost or stolen it needs to be reported.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: We think that the state legislature's been very clear that it and it alone reserves the right to regulate firearms. These municipalities have delegated authority from the general assembly and they're exceeding that authority.

SHAFFNER: That's NRA outside counsel Jonathan Goldstein. In sweeping fashion, Pennsylvania state law says municipalities cannot, quote, "in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms." But Pittsburgh isn't the only city to have gun ordinances. Many other municipalities also have local laws that, say, ban gunfire within city limits or prohibit carrying in a public park. Gun rights activists have long claimed these ordinances defy state law.

GOLDSTEIN: The municipalities had been warned repeatedly about this. They knew what they were doing was illegal and they did it anyway.

SHAFFNER: Before the new law you had to prove you'd been harmed by an ordinance to challenge it in court. But the new law takes away that requirement and it allows groups like the NRA to sue on behalf of state members.

GOLDSTEIN: Now a municipality can't just ignore the law and get away with it.

SHAFFNER: So far the NRA has filed lawsuits against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lancaster, and it's not just the NRA that's taking action. Another gun rights group - Texas-based U.S. Law Shield - has sued Harrisburg, the state capital. Goldstein, NRA's legal counsel, warns that any Pennsylvania municipality with local gun ordinances could be next. Adam Winkler, a professor of Constitutional Law at UCLA, says what's happening in Pennsylvania could affect policy elsewhere.

ADAM WINKLER: If it becomes a model for the NRA to seek special rules to sue local governments that are not gun control laws, it's a relatively radical reshaping of standing doctrine to allow an organization to sue even if they can't prove that they've been harmed by the law at all.

SHAFFNER: Shira Goodman, the executive director of the gun control advocacy group CeaseFirePA, says the legislators who passed the new law have put municipalities between a rock and a hard place.

SHIRA GOODMAN: You have to choose between doing what you thought was right to protect your communities and what you now might be in fear for your public budget, and that's a terrible, terrible thing.

SHAFFNER: Ferguson Township in central Pennsylvania for years had an ordinance banning the possession of firearms in public parks - no longer. The township voted last week to rewrite its ordinances. Here's township manager Mark Kunkle.

MARK KUNKLE: There is no choice here. It's a compliance issue with the state law.

SHAFFNER: Ferguson Township is just one of the municipalities that have changed their laws to avoid the possibility of an expensive lawsuit. The new law also allows challengers to seek financial damages. The three cities sued by the NRA are fighting the law in court along with several state legislators. They say the way it was passed is unconstitutional. State law says statutes up for a vote have to be about a single subject - the gun law amendment was tacked onto a bill about scrap metal. For NPR News, I'm Kate Lao Shaffner.

SIMON: And that story comes from Keystone Crossroads, a statewide public media initiative on the challenges that face Pennsylvania cities. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.