Yesterday, Pennsylvania's Senate and House passed what opponents are calling "Sue Our Cities" bills (SB 5 and HB 671). This legislation would give the National Rifle Association and other organizations the power to sue cities that have passed gun-control measures they deem unconstitutional.
"The bills will almost certainly result in either the NRA or any member of the gun groups across the state suing our town," says Rob Conroy, director of organizing for CeasFirePA, a nonprofit working to end gun violence. "Obviously, we at CeaseFirePA, and as responsible citizens, view this as a a huge problem."
In 2008, Pittsburgh passed an ordinance
requiring gun owners to report if their firearms are lost or stolen. While Mayor Bill Peduto pledged to enforce the legislation if elected, the ordinance has never been enforced. Peduto has said he has not enforced the ordinance because of the threat of a lawsuit, but the so-called "Sue Our Cities" bill would give organizations like the NRA the ability to sue cities even if they haven't enforced legislation. They can face a lawsuit just for having laws like Pittsburgh's lost-and-stolen ordinance on the books.
"While how much this will directly affect Pittsburgh taxpayers is fully hypothetical, it's fair to say if a lawsuit were able to proceed without any successful constitutional challenges, taxpayers in Pittsburgh would be on the hook for not only the city's legal costs, but also on the hook for paying the legal fees of the gun lobby if they were to prevail," Conroy says. "The gun lobby has set this up so that taxpayers will essentially be giving donations to the gun lobby."
The Senate legislation was sponsored by Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Clearfield) who, in a January 2017 memo, defended it saying:
"Where no uniform state laws are in place, the result can be chaotic, as restrictions change from one local jurisdiction to another. An overabundance of varying ordinances leads to citizens with no criminal intent being placed in danger of breaking restrictions where they don’t know they exist. Furthermore, it is unreasonable to require residents of Pennsylvania and citizens passing through from other states to be aware of every firearm ordinance as they pass through each local jurisdiction.
Specifically, this legislation would prevent local jurisdictions from imposing ordinances more restrictive than laws passed by the General Assembly. This legislation will also enhance and restore the original intent of the Uniform Firearms Act."
(A memo on HB 671 included nearly identical language.)
SB 5 passed by a vote of 34 to 16. Locals Sen. Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills) and Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline) voted against the measure while Guy Reschenthaler (R-Jefferson Hills) and Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Shaler) voted in support.
HB 671 passed by a vote of 134 to 53. Local Rep. Dom Costa (D-Stanton Heights), who has come under fire
for votes and positions on legislation in recent months, voted in favor of the legislation. But others like repsresentatives Ed Gainey (D-Lincoln-Lemington) and Adam Ravenstahl (D-Summerhill) voted against it.
"We believe that these bills are once again an illustration of just how far our state legislature is willing to bend, in this case, to the gun lobby at the expense of pretty much every other Pennsylvanian," says Conroy. "We are pledging every day to fight to against this."
While both pieces of legislation passed by a substantial margin, these votes don't signify the end of the fight for activists like CeaseFirePA. Any legislation will still have to be signed by Gov. Tom Wolf.
"We certainly hope that Gov. Wolf will stand up and do the right thing regarding this. We know that in the past he has expressed an intent to do so," Conroy says. "However, there is a substantial risk that this time around, there may be enough of a majority in both parts of our legislature to override the veto. It is on us the citizens to make sure our representatives do the right thing to protect our citizens."