A bill that would make it easier for gun owners and supporters to sue local municipalities imposing local gun ordinances in violation of state law is getting another shot from the General Assembly.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 21-6 to approve the legislation on Sept. 20 despite the threat of a veto from Gov. Tom Wolf.
House Bill 2258, sponsored by Rep. Mark Keller, R-Perry, would allow firearm and ammunition owners and organizations from anywhere in Pennsylvania to sue a municipality for imposing firearm and ammunition ordinances that conflict with state laws.
“They know what the law is. They know the laws start up here in Harrisburg with the Legislature and Governor. They’re disobeying the law…” said Rep. Dom Costa, D-Allegheny.
Legislators who supported the bill said the differing laws between jurisdictions leaves room for citizens who are following state laws to be prosecuted and face substantial legal fees to challenge the ordinances without any knowledge that they are committing an offense.
“There is a right for every person, no matter what their organizations are, to rely on the laws of the Commonwealth that say they have a right to carry a gun anywhere,” said Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Cambria. “If the state Legislature doesn’t decide that another law is necessary – we have in regards to first class county – but if there isn’t another law that says municipal governments can pass their own gun laws, then we should have some order. All this bill does is put order in the system and says that you have to follow these rules.”
The legislation would specifically grant an individual or organization who successfully challenges an illegal ordinance reimbursement from the jurisdiction for their attorney’s fees and costs associated with the lawsuit, as well as any loss of income related to the ordinance and subsequent lawsuit.
Under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, the local regulation of gun and ammunition ownership, possession, transfer or transportation is illegal if it conflicts with state laws, however, local officials, like those in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Lancaster, have passed ordinances they say will protect their municipalities.
A similar bill was passed and signed into law by former Gov. Tom Corbett in 2014, leading numerous municipalities to repeal their ordinances or face litigation.
The law was later ruled unconstitutional by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. The substance of the bill was not called into question, rather the process by which it became law was deemed unconstitutional.
An amendment was added to the latest edition that would give a municipality’s leaders 30 days’ notice of an impending lawsuit so they may choose to repeal the ordinance.
Last year, before the court’s ruling, the city of Lancaster was sued by the National Rifle Association because of their discharge and lost-and-stolen ordinances, Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray said after the meeting. Gray said he opposes HB2258.
He said he was most upset that he was forced to empty his pockets and walk through metal detectors upon entering the Capitol Building in the interest of the legislators’ safety, but the same legislators approved a bill that prohibits city leaders from making laws to protect their own municipal offices.
“It’s an outrage,” Gray said, adding that municipalities should be able to ban firearms to prevent shootings at public meetings and provide protection for public servants and elected officials.
Unlike his predecessor who signed the 2014 law, Wolf does not support the legislation as it is currently written, his spokesman Mark Nicastre wrote in an email.
However, Keller believes the chambers may have the votes necessary to override a veto if it comes down to it, he said following the meeting.
Among other legislation considered by the committee is a bill that would give police officers, firefighters and humane officers protection from lawsuits for breaking into a unattended vehicle to save a cat or dog that appears to be in danger.
House Bill 1516, which won unanimous approval from the committee, would also establish “confinement of dog or cat in a car under conditions that jeopardize the pet’s health” as a summary offense.
Both bills will move on to the House for full consideration. They must be brought up and passed in both chambers within the ten remaining session days if they are to become law this year.