Localities Push Pennsylvania to Reconsider Requiring People to Report Missing Guns

After 30 municipalities passed laws requiring residents to tell police when their guns disappear, the legislature is reconsidering a statewide proposal that failed in 2008 to do just that.
by | June 14, 2013
 

Five years ago lawmakers in Harrisburg, Pa., rejected a statewide proposal requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms to police. Today the state capitol counts itself among 30 municipalities in Pennsylvania with a reporting requirement at the local level. Rep. Madeleine Dean, who represents a township 12 miles north of Philadelphia, introduced a bill on June 10 to try again to extend the policy to the rest of the state.

“I have hopes for this legislation,” Dean said. “It’s not a restriction on gun ownership.”

When the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted down the missing firearms measure in 2008, mayors across the state responded by passing versions of the bill that applied to their municipalities. A gun control group advocacy organization called CeaseFirePA worked with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s organization, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, to replicate the ordinances that first sprung up in large cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

“It just took on a life of its own,” said Phil Goldsmith, the past president of the board at CeaseFirePA. “I mean, municipalities started to come to us.”

According to a Governing analysis, about 2.5 million residents in Pennsylvania live in municipalities that require the reporting of lost firearms. Another 291,000 live in places with resolutions that support a statewide lost-firearm requirement. The state has a total of 12.7 million people.

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Rep. Dean’s bill would require residents across the state to report lost or stolen firearms to local police within 72 hours after discovering the gun was gone. Not reporting within that 72-hour window could result in a fine of up to $500. Municipalities with a reporting ordinance vary in how long someone has to report the missing weapon and how big a fine the person could pay if they fail to make a report. Eight states and the District of Columbia have similar statewide reporting requirements for lost firearms.

Dean’s bill, like lost-firearm requirements in other states, is intended to discourage straw purchases, where someone buys a gun legally only to sell it to someone prohibited from owning a gun. Local police say that when they trace back the origins of guns used in crimes, the purchaser claims that the gun was lost or stolen. Under a lost-firearms ordinance, police could punish straw purchasers who make that excuse.

The movement has mostly caught on in larger urban areas in the state -- its five largest cities already have a reporting requirement. The following map shows Philadelphia-area municipalities enacting lost-firearm requirements in red:

The push has also spread to some smaller boroughs, such as Oxford, population 5,077. Still, few rural and suburban jurisdictions have adopted a lost-firearms ordinance. For Rep. Dean’s bill to pass, she’ll likely need the support of lawmakers from those less population-dense areas.

Criminal use of firearms “definitely impacts the urban areas more than the rural areas,” said Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, but “it’s a statewide problem. There is no red line on the ground about where Allentown starts and stops. Criminals don’t care about those lines.”

While it looked as though more municipalities were going to adopt lost-firearm ordinances, action stopped after 2010. Some say the National Rifle Association chilled future action by municipalities through lawsuits against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The gun-rights group claimed that those cities’ reporting requirements violated a state law that prohibits local regulation of legal gun ownership. Judges dismissed the cases because the plaintiffs didn’t have standing -- a technicality that allowed courts to leave the local laws in place without addressing the legality of the ordinances. When the lawsuits failed, the NRA backed a bill that would have penalized cities for passing lost-firearms reporting requirements, though that effort also stalled.

Given that Republicans control the state legislature and governor’s office, Dean’s bill faces an uphill battle. Nonetheless, Goldsmith, of CeaseFirePA, finds some hope in public polling about other gun control measures, such as universal background checks, which suggest that a majority of Pennsylvanians support some government interventions to curb gun violence. A national survey commissioned by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that 68 percent of gun owners support the reporting requirement for lost or stolen firearms.

Although CeaseFirePA would be receptive to more municipalities passing lost-firearms ordinances, the gun control group’s focus is now on pushing the state law. “What we’ll do is keep coming back to Harrisburg. We’re not going to back off just because the legislature said no again,” Goldsmith said.

Where are the lost/stolen reporting ordinances?

The map below shows every Pennsylvania municipality with an ordinance requiring residents to report lost or stolen firearms, shown in red. Municipalities shaded in dark gray passed resolutions in favor of a statewide reporting requirement, though they do not have their own ordinance.

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