Sun. Jun 20th, 2021

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday that would leave cities and towns that have tried to craft local gun control laws on the hook for all court costs associated with a successful court challenge to those ordinances.

Carried by 112 of the 113 Republican votes and 12 Democrats, the bill passed 124-79, and now moves to the state Senate for further consideration. Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery County and past sponsor of bills like extreme risk protection orders designed to separate persons deemed to be dangerous from their weapons, was the only Republican to vote no.

The legislature passed, and Gov. Tom Corbett signed, a similar version of this so-called “pre-emption” language in 2014, but that act was later declared unconstitutional by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court because the bill carrying the language in question was found to be in violation of the Constitution’s single-subject rule.

Since Gov. Tom Wolf, a supporter of more stringent gun laws, took office in 2015, the legislature has regularly re-introduced the gun law pre-emption bill, but it hasn’t received a floor vote for several years.

More conservative majorities in the state House seem to be more willing, these days, however, to draw clear lines for voters on where they stand on conservative priorities and, where possible, point out the contracts with legislative Democrats and Wolf. Because of the likelihood of a veto by Wolf, however, it was not immediately clear Tuesday when or if the bill will be called for a vote in the Senate.

Sponsored by Rep. Matt Dowling, a Republican from Uniontown, the bill’s language gives legal standing to challenge a local gun law to any person who could legally own a gun in Pennsylvania, as well as any membership organization of which said person is a member. That opens the door for court challenges by groups like the National Rifle Association.

In the past, Pennsylvania courts have found that groups like the NRA have lacked standing to bring such suits.

The state Supreme Court is currently weighing whether the state chapter of Firearm Owners Against Crime has standing to pursue a court challenge against a Harrisburg gun law that, among other provisions, requires gun owners to report to police any loss or theft of a gun within 48 hours of discovery, and bans guns from city parks.

Dowling’s bill also holds that any municipality found to have enacted a gun law that oversteps the state’s authority to regulate ownership, possession and transportation of firearms would be on the hook for all attorneys fees, court costs and other costs associated with the case.

“State law already prohibits municipalities across the Commonwealth from enacting their own gun laws, but some have chosen to break that law,” Dowling said. “My bill would hold those municipalities accountable for their unlawful and unconstitutional actions.”

Gun control advocates say it is proper for local officials to take specific steps to fight the gun violence problems they face – like mandating a report to police of a lost or stolen gun to try to cut down on illegal gun trafficking – the wake of inaction on tougher gun laws at the state level.

They oppose the preemption bill because they say the threat of lawsuits has a chilling effect on local officials’ to take stronger stands against guns.

“Last time this happened a number of years ago we saw smaller municipalities… remove from their books existing gun ordinances and make in speeches at times comments that they strongly supported these, but that the risk of lawsuit was so significant,” said Adam Garber, executive director of Ceasefire PA.

In a short floor debate Tuesday, Rep. Dan Frankel, a gun control supporter from Pittsburgh, argued Dowling’s proposal will “prevent local governments and local government officials from doing the job that they are elected to do: That is to keep their communities safe, to keep their citizens safe.”

Dowling said there is no state overreach. “The municipalities gain all powers from the state,” he said, “and there’s no such thing as overreach by this body.”