Pennsylvania Cities Invoke The Law To Flout The Law

posted on March 25, 2016

If you want to see how anti-gun politicians make a mockery of the law, look at Pennsylvania. 

What started out simple enough—Pennsylvania’s Constitution was the first to recognize the right to bear arms and the right to self-defense—turned into a patchwork of countless sets of laws in different Pennsylvania cities.

And when the legislature first passed a pre-emption law in 1974 to eliminate the mishmash of local gun control ordinances by requiring firearms laws to be no stricter than state law—big-city politicians simply decided not to obey that legislative mandate. 

Cities kept their anti-gun laws on the books. Many added new anti-gun laws, no matter how much stricter they were than state law. 

And now, after the legislature has passed yet another law, Act 192, giving the people a way to enforce the pre-emption law passed 42 years ago ... a Pennsylvania court has prohibited enforcement of Act 192 on procedural grounds. Will the Pennsylvania Supreme Court defy two laws passed over 40 years?

And so now Pennsylvania gun owners have been forced to take it to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which heard arguments this month. 

It shouldn’t have to be this complicated.

Honest Pennsylvania gun owners shouldn’t live in fear of violating 100 different sets of laws from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. Yet that’s exactly the situation created by local politicians acting in direct defiance of state law.

For example, local ordinances in Pittsburgh require extensive record-keeping rules on ammunition sales and ban “assault weapons” and “large capacity ammunition belts.” Several Pennsylvania cities require gun owners to immediately report lost or stolen firearms or face criminal sanctions. White Oak prohibited the right to carry on borough property. In New Freedom, you weren’t allowed to display a gun in a park. Many cities banned lawful concealed carry in parks. It goes on and on. 

Prior to passage of the pre-emption law, what that meant was that if you moved from one part of Pennsylvania to another—or even traveled inside the state—you could unknowingly be committing a crime. 

Pre-emption laws are nothing unusual—they're just common sense. Forty-five states expressly pre-empt local firearm ordinances, and four states do so by judicial procedure for just that reason.

The point of pre-emption laws is to enforce statewide uniformity so honest people don’t run afoul of laws by traveling within the state. 

Yet while some Pennsylvania jurisdictions rescinded their local anti-gun laws, many didn’t. They simply ignored the pre-emption law and left their various anti-gun laws on the books—whether or not they ever intended to enforce them. 

When they didn’t enforce them, no innocent citizens got caught in the gears. And because no innocent citizens could claim wrongful prosecution and harm, no one had legal “standing,” under Pennsylvania law, to file suit to have the laws overturned through pre-emption. 

So what was left were a bunch of laws that did nothing except put honest gun owners through a lot of headaches, worries and hassle—and whether or not they violated the state’s firearm pre-emption law, no one could do anything about them in court!

And that made the 1974 pre-emption law unenforceable against localities that kept their restrictive gun ordinances on the books to simply scare law-abiding gun owners from engaging in perfectly legal conduct.

So at the end of 2014, Keystone State gun owners, with the help of the NRA, pressed the legislature in Harrisburg to pass yet another law saying, yet again, that yes, the Framers meant it when they wrote Pennsylvania’s Constitution, and yesSimon says, this time—the people meant it when they convinced their elected leaders in Harrisburg to say “No laws stricter than state law”—and yes we can sue you in court to have those laws overturned. You shouldn’t have to fight in court to defend a law passed by the legislature to enforce a law passed by the legislature—when Nixon was president—over and over again.

That was Act 192, signed by former Governor Tom Corbett in November, 2014. It allowed Pennsylvania residents to file suit to overturn local anti-gun laws. In so doing, finally, after 40 years, Act 192 made Pennsylvania’s 1974 pre-emption law enforceable

After Act 192 was passed, at least 20 jurisdictions across Pennsylvania repealed their confusing and contradictory anti-gun laws—and honest gun owners breathed a sigh of relief. 

But even then, after the people said, “Yes, we meant it when we passed those laws, no kidding, Scout’s Honor, we really mean it this time”—some cities still kept their anti-gun ordinances in defiance of pre-emption, effectively forcing lawful gun owners to take them to court simply to force them to obey state law. 

So with the help of the NRA, Pennsylvania residents sued cities, from Philadelphia to Lancaster and Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. 

But now anti-gun politicians think they’ve found yet another way to thwart the will of the people and evade the pre-emption law. 

Now they’re saying that because Act 192 was passed as part of another criminal justice bill, it supposedly violates a Pennsylvania law requiring all legislation to be on a single issue, which led the Pennsylvania trial court to take issue with “the regularity of procedures employed by the General Assembly in enacting” Act 192. 

Again: It shouldn’t have to be this complicated. You shouldn’t have to go to court to defend a law that was passed by the legislature specifically to enforce a law passed by the legislature—back when Nixon was president—over and over again. 

You shouldn’t have to say “Simon says” or “we really, really mean it” over the course of almost half a century simply to get elected leaders to live under the law. 

Unfortunately, that’s the way it is in Pennsylvania. 

So, as ever, it comes down to this: No matter how Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court rules on this case, your only way to vote on this issue is through your vote in every election. 

You may not be able to control the courts directly. And you may not be able to rein in big-city politicians by yourself. But your elected leaders will always be your only, your best, your closest and your most controllable instruments of influence over the process.

But only if you exert that control by voting your rights. Get registered to vote. Get every gun owner registered to vote. And get ready to vote on Election Day this year. 

Whether you live in Pennsylvania or anywhere else, there’s no more important thing you can do than that—and no more important year to do so than this.


Deputy Tyler Thoman
Deputy Tyler Thoman

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