Municipalities Must Adhere to State Law When It Comes to Firearms Legislation

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The regulation of firearms by cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh undermines state authority, argues a litigator representing the NRA.

When the National Rifle Association filed suit against Philadelphia, Lancaster and Pittsburgh last month, the suit was as much about the limits of local government power and respect for the law in Pennsylvania as it was about firearms. 
 
In 1974, the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted a statewide law that laid out a general rule about who could regulate firearms in Pennsylvania: The law, known as §6120, states: “No county, municipality or township may in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components when carried or transported for purposes not prohibited by the laws of this Commonwealth.”
 
Even as far back as the early 1970s, the General Assembly knew that the topic of firearms was a difficult and sensitive one.
 
Since the time of enactment, some of Pennsylvania’s local governments have routinely ignored the language of §6120. These municipalities have worked with national and local gun control groups to enact ordinances that purport to regulate firearms with fines and jail time.
 
Fundamentally, these misguided local governments failed to acknowledge that they are creations of and are subordinate to Pennsylvania’s General Assembly. Pennsylvania municipalities are simply not permitted to regulate in an area that the General Assembly has claimed for itself alone.
 
As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said in the 1996 case Ortiz v. Commonwealth, because the ownership of firearms is constitutionally protected, its regulation is a matter of statewide concern. The Constitution does not provide that the right to bear arms shall not be questioned in any part of the commonwealth except Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but that it shall not be questioned in any part of the commonwealth. Thus, regulation of firearms is a matter of concern in all of Pennsylvania, not merely in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and the General Assembly, not city councils, is the proper forum for the imposition of such regulation.
 
Shockingly, after Ortiz, more ordinances followed. Apparently, the mere words of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court weren’t enough to stop gun control advocates and their municipal allies.
 
Over the next several years, a lot of complex legal wrangling ensued with courts ultimately holding that only people who had been prosecuted under local gun control ordinances had the ability to challenge the ordinances in court. Lawful gun owners across the commonwealth had to live under the continuous threat of prosecution under illegal municipal ordinances. 
 
Fast forward to the fall of 2014, when the General Assembly and then-Gov. Tom Corbett changed §6120 to permit individuals and groups like the NRA to sue local governments and force them to withdraw their illegal ordinances. Critically, under the changed law, municipalities would have to pay the legal fees and costs for anyone who successfully caused a local government to repeal an illegal firearms ordinance.
 
Now, for the first time in 40 years, municipalities that defy the law must pay for their defiance. Local governments have known since at least 1996 what §6120 meant. Was the ruling in Ortiz unclear? They also had plenty of notice of the 2014 changes in the law. There was a 60-day period after enactment during which time they could have repealed ordinances without paying legal fees and costs. 
 
Instead of repealing their illegal ordinances, however, what did Philadelphia, Lancaster and Pittsburgh do? They teamed up with the legislators who opposed the 2014 changes to §6120 in the General Assembly and sued to have the changes overturned on a technicality. 
 
Enough is enough.
 
Pennsylvania’s local governments must stop substituting their own judgment for that of our duly elected statewide lawmakers and judges. As the Talmud states, “dina d’malchuta dina,” that is, “the law of the land is the law.”(Talmud Gitin 10b, Nedarim 28a.) Our sacred texts teach us that even when we disagree with the law, we must still respect the lawmaking process and the results it yields.
 
If local governments have ideas about how to change our commonwealth’s firearms laws, they should bring them to the General Assembly so that they can be evaluated for fitness through a statewide political process.
 
Local governments and gun control advocates must also be prepared for the possibility that, despite their passion for their own ideas, others might not agree with them and their ideas might not become law. That’s how the political process works.
 
Repeal of illegal local ordinances is now the most prudent course. Local governments shouldn’t delay. Taxpayers are watching and the meter is running.
 
Jonathan Goldstein is a partner at the locally based McNelly Goldstein, LLC, which is handling the National Rifle Association’s litigation against cities to get them to withdraw their local gun ordinances.
 

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