Court Strikes Down Law That Let NRA Sue Cities in Pennsylvania

by | June 26, 2015

By Chris Hepp and Jessica Parks

A law that permitted the National Rifle Association to sue Philadelphia and other municipalities over local gun ordinances that are stricter than state law is unconstitutional, a state appeals court ruled Thursday.

The 2014 law granted legal standing to "membership organizations" to sue over local gun laws, and collect legal fees and other costs if they won.

The NRA used to the measure to sue Philadelphia. Other municipalities have repealed ordinances to avoid similar suits.

In a decision released Thursday, a seven-member Commonwealth Court panel unanimously ruled that the law, known as Act 192, violated the state constitution because of the way it was enacted by the General Assembly. Specifically, the language affecting local gun laws was belatedly added to an unrelated bill.

Though the ruling focused on that relatively narrow issue, it amounted to a rare win for supporters of gun limits in a state where firearms owners and the NRA are a strong political force.

Mayor Nutter, in Rome with the delegation planning the September visit to Philadelphia by Pope Francis, called the ruling a "great victory for cities, for public safety, and for good government."

"The Court has preserved the ability of democratically-elected local officials throughout this Commonwealth to do what they think is necessary to protect their citizens from the scourge of gun violence," he said in a prepared statement. "The Court's decision also could not be clearer that the way in which Act 192 was adopted by the General Assembly was undemocratic, unconstitutional and must stop."

Said State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), who was among those who sought to overturn the law: "You should not be able to sneak in unrelated provisions to a bill at the last minute when nobody will notice. And thanks to the Pennsylvania constitution, you can't."

A spokesman for state Sen. Richard Alloway (R., Franklin), who crafted the legislation, said Alloway was disappointed, but undeterred.

"This was, and is, very important to him," said Alloway's chief of staff, Jeremy Shoemaker. "His position is we are just going to try and start over and do this in a way where we don't run into this problem again."

A spokeswoman for the state Senate's Republican majority said, "We are reviewing the Court's decision, and anticipate that we will file an appeal with the [state] Supreme Court."

A call to the NRA for comment was not returned.

The Commonwealth Court ruling centers on a law that greatly lowered the standard needed to bring a lawsuit challenging a local gun regulation that is stricter than existing state law.

Typically, only someone directly affected by such a law would have standing to bring a such a suit. Act 192 allowed suits from any organization with members who might be affected, opening the door to challenges by the NRA. The act also made such legal battles potentially costly to municipalities: They have to pay attorney fees and court costs if they lose.

Before the law was passed, scores of municipalities had imposed their own gun regulations, many requiring owners to report lost or stolen guns.

Within months of Act 192's enactment, however, Norristown, Hatfield Township, Plymouth, Whitemarsh, Jenkintown and Cheltenham, among others, repealed their ordinances rather than risk a court battle.

"As a lawyer, we have to advise our clients, and we have to be a little cautious," Sean Kilkenny, a solicitor for several of those municipalities, explained last year. "If a town like Jenkintown gets sued, a couple hundred thousand dollars would blow a huge hole in their budget."

Leach and four other Democratic state legislators challenged Act 192's constitutionality based upon the manner by which it came to be.

On the last day of the legislative session before the 2014 governor's election, the provisions affecting gun laws -- which had been part of a bill stalled in the House -- were added to a bill in the Senate that increased penalties for the theft of copper and aluminium.

In their challenge, the Democratic legislators contended that the move violated the state constitution, which requires each bill to deal with one subject, and that the subject remain the same as the bill makes its way through the legislature.

"We conclude that Act 192 clearly, palpably and plainly violates the single subject requirement," said the Commonwealth Court opinion, authored by Judge Robert Simpson.

Richard Feder, Philadelphia's deputy chief city solicitor for appeals, said that with the court's ruling he fully expects the NRA's suit against Philadelphia to be dismissed. The gun advocacy group had challenged seven city ordinances, he said. Those included measures requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns, prohibiting minors from unrestricted access to guns, and allowing the mayor to ban the public carrying of guns during states of emergency.

In the suburbs, Jenkintown Mayor Ed Foley said he anticipated a reconsideration of a township's lost-or-stolen gun ordinance, which had been repealed because of Act 192.

"We had no way of knowing what the future would hold," he said Thursday, defending the town's decision to roll back the measure in the face of the NRA's threat. "Hopefully we can reinstate this common-sense measure. It was just intended to protect people."

In Lower Merion, commissioners decided not to repeal or amend a law that bans unlicensed guns in parks. A state firearms group sued the township in March and activists from around the state staged a protest, marching around Bala Cynwyd Park with handguns and signs.

"We do feel vindicated," Lower Merion Commissioner Brian McGuire said of Thursday's ruling. "It was very clear that a great majority of Lower Merion residents did not want to kowtow to the NRA or these other gun-owner groups."

Staff writers Madison Russ and Angela Couloumbis contributed to this story.

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer