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Friday, June 11, 2010

More blanks fired in gun ordinance dispute

Posted By on Fri, Jun 11, 2010 at 10:56 AM

The playwright Anton Chekhov once said that if there's a gun on the mantlepiece in Act I, it must go off before the play ends. 

That may not be true of gun-control legislation, though. As we've previously reported, a city ordinance requiring that gun owners report lost-and-stolen firearms has yet to be enforced -- despite being passed two years ago.

A similarly unenforced Philadelphia law has been working its way through the courts. And yesterday, the state Supreme Court handled the law-that-has-never-been-used by declining to judge its merits.

Both sides of the gun-control debate declared victory. Which can only mean that each side is probably wrong.  

The Post-Gazette has a somewhat murky version of the story, with the headline "State high court upholds ordinance to report lost, stolen weapons."

Actually, that's sort of mistating matters.  As the text of the story itself suggests, the court's one-sentence decision said nothing about the merits of Philly's law. It merely upheld an earlier Commonwealth Court opinion, which found that none of the plaintiffs challenging the law -- local gun owners and advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association -- had any standing to oppose it. 

The lower court's position on the standing issue is spelled out on page 6: In order to challenge a law, you have to "allege a particularized, concrete injury ... which is causally traceable to the complained-of [law]." But because none of the Plaintiffs had been charged under the law, they "failed to establish any injury sufficient to confer standing with respect to these three Ordinances."

In other words, all the Supreme Court did was agree that a law can remain on the books ... at least until someone is charged under it. 

Pittsburgh's stolen-gun ordinance is much like Philly's, and is in the same limbo. That's because it, too, was challenged in court under a "shoot first, ask questions later" strategy. Once again, the NRA and its allies challenged the law before it was enforced, as Allegheny County Judge Stanton Wettick noted in a ruling of his own.

Wettick cited the Philly case as the governing precedent, noting that it presented "an almost identical fact situation." In Pittsburgh, the plaintiffs argued that their situation was different because one of them had lost a firearm previously -- though that was apparently before the ordinance was passed. Wettick shrugged that off.

Courts should only weigh in on a law's merits, he wrote, when presented with a "lawsuit ... brought by the persons who are actually being harmed" by it. Hypothetical harms don't count, and even if a plaintiff had lost a gun in the past, Wettick wrote, "I fail to see how this shows that there is a significant likelihood that this plaintiff will have another firearm stolen will fail to report the theft and will be prosecuted for his failure to report." 

It's worth noting, in fact, that none of the Pittsburgh plaintiffs said they would NOT report a stolen gun. Presumably, these are all responsible gun owners -- people who would report a firearm's disappearence, the same way they would report a missing car. So don't expect to see them back any time soon.

Still, Wettick's ruling, too, was appealed to the Commonwealth Court. I'm guessing that will just amount to firing blanks as well. There's a bizarre standoff taking place here: We've got a law that's never been enforced, being appealed by people who would never run afoul of it.

I don't know if anyone will be charged under Pittsburgh's law. But if that day comes, the defendant will almost certainly be  a lot less sympathetic and responsible than the plaintiffs we've heard from so far. It'll be interesting to see if the NRA rallies to their side. 

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