Armed with a new state law that opponents denounce as a gift to the gun lobby, pro-gun groups are rapidly scaling up their attack on municipal firearms ordinances throughout Pennsylvania, with the National Rifle Association filing suit over gun-control measures in three cities.
Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lancaster have "openly defied" a 40-year-old state law that forbids municipalities from regulating firearms, said Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action.
The cities said they will fight the NRA, contending the local regulations are a sensible way to address deadly gun violence.
"This should be a wake-up call for citizens across Pennsylvania," Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said. "We're not taking away anyone's right to own a gun — or 10 or 20 guns. What we're saying is when a gun is lost or stolen, you've got to report it. Too many people are being killed in the streets of Pittsburgh and other cities with stolen guns."
Pennsylvania has long barred its municipalities from approving ordinances that regulate the ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of guns or ammunition. But scores of cities and towns ignored the prohibition, and gun-rights groups complained the local measures were difficult to challenge because judges have ruled that plaintiffs could not prove harm.
Under a state law that took effect last week, gun owners no longer have to show they have been harmed by an ordinance to win in court. The new law also allows organizations like the NRA to sue, and successful challengers can seek legal fees and other costs.
Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lancaster are fighting the new law in court, arguing lawmakers didn't follow constitutional procedure for passing legislation.
"It is unconstitutional, it never should have been passed, and it breaks with more than 200 years of history in Pennsylvania, by allowing organizations without standing the ability to sue," Peduto said.
Under threat of litigation from several smaller gun-rights groups, more than 20 Pennsylvania municipalities already have moved to repeal their firearms ordinances instead of defending them in court. Another group, Houston-based U.S. Law Shield, sued the capital of Harrisburg on Tuesday over its gun laws.
The NRA suit filed Wednesday against Philadelphia targets seven ordinances, including ones that require owners to report lost or stolen firearms; prohibit guns from city-owned facilities; and ban weapons possession by people subject to protection-from-abuse orders or who are found to pose a risk of "imminent harm" to themselves or others.
Philadelphia officials have long said its measures are needed to combat gun violence that claims hundreds of lives each year. In 2010, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court tossed city ordinances that limited people to buying one gun a month and banned assault weapons, but the NRA — deemed to lack standing — lost its bid to get other city gun laws thrown out.
If the city's bid to overturn the new state law is successful, "then the NRA would not have standing to file the suits that it has filed today," said Mark McDonald, spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter.
In the small city of Lancaster, meanwhile, the NRA is challenging an ordinance that requires gun owners to tell police when a firearm is lost or stolen.
Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray, one of the named defendants, denounced the NRA lawsuit as "pathetic" and said the city's attorney had determined its ordinance could withstand legal scrutiny.
"The NRA is a New York-organized corporation that is based in Virginia and they are suing us in Lancaster because we are asking people to report stolen firearms," he said. "I have a difficult time getting my arms around that."
Cox, the NRA official, said local laws "do not make people safer" and, in a statement, accused officials of "politically grandstanding at taxpayers' expense."
The NRA plans to go after other municipalities whose gun ordinances are barred by state law, said the group's attorney, Jonathan Goldstein.
"We expect every municipality to repeal ordinances that are pre-empted. If other folks don't get on board with what the law requires, they can expect to hear from us in due course," he said.