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Pennsylvania Trial Court Invalidates NRA-Backed Preemption Reforms, Jeopardizes Ongoing Lawsuits

Friday, June 26, 2015

Pennsylvania Trial Court Invalidates NRA-Backed Preemption Reforms, Jeopardizes Ongoing Lawsuits

An NRA-backed law passed in Pennsylvania last year to hold accountable local jurisdictions that were defying the state’s 40-year-old firearm preemption statute has been declared invalid by a Pennsylvania trial court. The court did not take issue with the terms of the amended law itself but with “the regularity of procedures employed by the General Assembly in enacting” it. Specifically, the court found the final version of the act did not comply with the state constitution’s requirement that legislation pertain only to a single subject and that bills not be altered or amended during the legislative process to change their original purpose.

The good news is that the exact same language, as it pertains to the state’s firearm preemption statute, should still be eligible for enactment in a later session of the legislature. The bad news is that a number of lawsuits had already been launched under the newly-amended law to hold rogue jurisdictions accountable. The court’s decision on the validity of the new law could delay or cast these suits into doubt. 

By way of background, the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1974 enacted a broad state firearm preemption law to prevent counties and municipalities from interfering with firearm-related conduct not prohibited by state law. This was meant to ensure that those who complied with state law as they moved about the Commonwealth with firearms would not unknowingly fall afoul of obscure or more restrictive local regulations. A number of court cases over the years invalidated local gun control laws under the statute and reinforced the state’s authority to occupy the field of firearms regulation, to the exclusion of regulation by counties and cities.

Despite this history, anti-gun officials of counties and cities insisted they would press forward with gun control, defying a warning from the Attorney General’s Office that doing so would be illegal. The ethically-challenged view under which these efforts proceeded was that as long as the laws weren’t actually enforced, no one would have the “standing” to challenge their validity under the state preemption law in court. Nevertheless, anti-gun local officials could still point to the presence of the laws on the books as evidence of their determination to fight “gun violence.” Meanwhile, people who were aware of the local regulations might be intimidated (under false pretenses) into obeying them anyway.

That unfortunate and cynical view of things eventually prevailed in court, as NRA sought to challenge illegal local gun control under the state preemption statute and was denied standing to bring the cases because no actual enforcement action had been threatened or initiated under the local laws. This in turn led to a years-long effort to amend Pennsylvania law to create a “pre-enforcement” standing provision for the existing firearm preemption statute. That effort finally succeeded (or so it seemed) last year with the passage of House Bill 80, which amended the preemption statute to authorize persons adversely affected by illegal local gun control, and groups that represent them, to bring lawsuits to challenge the illegal ordinances. 

Localities were warned to remove their non-conforming laws from the books after the amendments were passed, and HB 80 granted them a 60-day window to do so before the law took effect. Some jurisdictions complied. Others did not, however, leading NRA to initiate lawsuits under HB 80 against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Lancaster.

While the fate of those particular suits is still to be determined (for example, they might still be able to proceed under other theories of standing), NRA’s commitment to ensuring that Keystone residents and visitors are not harassed by illegal local gun control remains fully intact. Stay tuned to this page for further updates as the situation develops. 

 

 

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