State bill would allow citizens to sue city over gun laws

The bill was in response to a movement that penalized gun owners who failed to report lost or stolen guns

· February 27, 2012, 11:05 pm   ·  Updated February 28, 2012, 11:45 pm

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A bill which would allow cities to be sued for local gun laws is currently pending in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

The legislation would require a total of 30 cities — including Philadelphia — to pay damages to plaintiffs who challenge the cities’ gun regulation laws.

The bill passed out of the House committee with bipartisan support, and it will be voted in the House in the beginning of March, according to John Hohenwarter, National Rifle Association’s Pennsylvania State Liaison.

The bill, heavily supported by the NRA, was in response to the cities’ move toward penalizing gun owners who fail to report lost or stolen guns. If passed, NRA and other interest groups can preemptively sue cities for upholding Lost or Stolen Handgun Reporting law.

Four years ago, cities from across the state — Allentown, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia — proposed a statewide Lost or Stolen Handgun Reporting law to make sure legal gun owners would be held accountable for their guns. The proposal was rejected by the state legislature, but Philadelphia was the first to pass the law in 2008, and 29 other cities followed suit in the next two years.

“It’s something in the right direction when it’s done by the city,” Max Nachman, 2008 College graduate and current executive director of CeaseFirePA — an anti-gun violence organization — said.

Nachman, who is against the pending House bill, said illegal guns can always be traced back to someone who once bought the gun legally, whether it was through theft or illegal trafficking.

One of the issues, he said, is that after the police find a gun at the scene of a crime and trace it back to an owner, that owner can just say that it was stolen and he had forgotten to report it. “This happens over and over again,” Nachman said.

Pennsylvania law does not currently require gun owners to report a missing firearm. “People who are actually buying them legally and are selling or giving them away illegally are able to get away with gun trafficking since they can’t be prosecuted,” Nachman said.

The NRA objected to the passing of the Lost or Stolen Handgun Reporting law and sued Philadelphia and Pittsburgh three times each over the past four years, according to Nachman.

“Now, the NRA is trying to change the rules just for them,” Nachman said. “So any gun owner can sue the city whether or not they find the city guilty. The fact of the matter is, these cities have not broken any rules. Nobody’s rights have been violated. You cannot sue these cities.”

Hohenwarter believes that firearms and ammunition should be regulated at the state level.

“You have to have laws which are uniform across the state to avoid 3,000 separate laws and regulations,” he said.

“Obviously state law should trump local laws,” Penn Shooting Club president and founder Cille Kissel said. The College senior believes that the House bill is meant to “empower individual citizens.”

“It sounds intuitive to me,” she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Mark Fiorino, a 25-year-old Lansdale resident, are currently suing the Philadelphia Police Department for alleged wrongful arrest.

Fiorino constantly carries a Glock .40-caliber semi-automatic pistol under the state’s Open Carry Law, which stipulates that legal gun owners may carry guns without licenses and unconcealed by clothing. He claims that he was wrongfully stopped, arrested and had his gun confiscated over the course of three separate encounters.

“I personally think it’s tragic that Philadelphia police officers aren’t familiar with the laws governing their fine city,” Kissel said.

Penn Shooting Club has over 400 members, according to Kissel. The club is bringing the NRA University program to campus on March 15 to educate students on firearm legislation.

“Cities are struggling with gun violence,” Nachman said. “Gun crimes are common threats. You’re not immune from it just because you’re at Penn.”

This story has been updated to reflect that Kissel is female, not male.

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