Pennsylvania court reviews law on local gun-control measures

AP News
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Posted: Mar 09, 2016 6:03 PM

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court was urged Wednesday to revive a law that would let the National Rifle Association and other groups pursue lawsuits against towns and cities that enact gun-control measures.

The law was passed in the final hours of the 2014 legislative session, and included in a bill that concerned the theft of scrap metal. The Commonwealth Court later overturned the law because of the way it was passed, but not before dozens of municipalities repealed gun-control regulations rather than risk a lawsuit.

In high court arguments Wednesday, Justice David Wecht grilled a lawyer defending the law over its inclusion in the scrap metal legislation. Pennsylvania law prohibits legislators from forcing votes on more than one subject in a single bill to thwart deal-making.

"What does suing the city over this gun issue have to do with stealing copper wire?" Wecht asked.

Lawyer Nicholas Orloff, arguing for Republican state lawmakers and others, said both the gun-control measures and scrap metal theft involve "the regulation of crime." He said that local officials who try to regulate firearms — through laws that mandate the reporting of lost and stolen guns, for instance — are breaking the law by usurping a power left to the state in Pennsylvania.

But Wecht and several other justices seemed doubtful, especially since the law grants outside groups authority to pursue civil lawsuits against the municipalities.

Several Democratic state senators challenged the law, along with the mayors of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lancaster.

"This bill had two totally unrelated things thrown together on the last day of session, specifically to avoid the single-subject rule," said Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat from suburban Philadelphia who is the lead plaintiff. "It was so last minute that the governor actually signed the wrong bill (at first)."

The local gun-control issue had been introduced as a separate bill, but failed to advance to a vote, he said.

"This bill is breathtaking, there's no other bill like it in the country. This bill allows the NRA, based in Washington, to sue any municipality in the commonwealth," he said.

Pennsylvania has a strong tradition of hunting and gun ownership, but big-city mayors, joined by groups like CeaseFirePA, have pushed gun-control measures to combat violence.

Orloff said that a single bill can regulate issues as broad as gambling, city governance or public welfare, each with hundreds of subsidiary topics. And he denied that sponsors of the law had aimed to bury the gun issue in a thick packet of unrelated legislation.

"This was not a deceptive bill. This was seven pages long," he said.

The court did not indicate when it would rule.