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October 07, 2020

Philly sues Pennsylvania for preempting gun safety laws

Lawsuit claims state blocks safety measures that would save lives

Lawsuits Gun Laws
Gun Philly Lawsuit Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

A lawsuit filed by Philadelphia against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania seeks to strike down the state's Firearm Preemption Laws, which prevent municipalities from enforcing gun safety measures that reflect higher rates of violence.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council leaders joined the families of gun violence victims Wednesday to announce a lawsuit filed against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, claiming the state has blocked local safety measures intended to contain an epidemic of shootings.

The lawsuit, filed in state court, alleges the state handcuffs local governments by preempting enactment and enforcement of remedies to gun violence. Families of gun violence victims and CeaseFirePA, a reform advocacy group, also are listed as plaintiffs.

Specifically, the suit claims that Pennsylvania's Firearm Preemption Laws "exacerbate the gun violence epidemic" by preventing localities from addressing their particular gun violence problems. The state law gives the Commonwealth overriding regulatory power over firearms and has been the subject of several legal battles involving Philadelphia gun safety legislation in years past.

"This action today sends a clear message — we are fed up with the Commonwealth’s continued insistence on handcuffing local governments on gun control," Kenney said. "Two years ago we declared gun violence a public health emergency and our city agencies have implemented proven approaches to reduce gun violence. 

"But until state lawmakers stop blocking local governments from enacting and enforcing common sense gun laws, our fight for violence reduction and meaningful gun reform will not end. This lawsuit is a big step in that direction."

Philadelphia has seen an overwhelming increase in shootings and homicides in 2020, surpassing last year's total with months to spare. Homicides in the city stood at 366 as of Oct. 6, up 40% over the same date in 2019.

Last year, City Council passed a "Safe Havens Law" that would prohibit guns and other deadly weapons from playgrounds and recreation centers. While the law received the approval of the mayor, the city could not enforce it due to inaction at the state level.

Other evidence-based regulations — including gun licensing and a one-gun-a month limit — have been barred from enforcement by the Firearm Preemption Laws going back to 2007.

Pennsylvania State Police saw a record number of background checks for firearms from the beginning of July through the end of September of this year. In the third quarter of 2020, the Pennsylvania Instant Check System completed 406,151 background checks, nearly double the amount during the same period last year. Nationally, gun ownership has followed a similar rise in 2020, as more than 2 million Americans became first-time gun owners

Petitioners involved in the lawsuit include individuals from both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh who have been impacted by gun violence.

"By enacting and continuing to ratify the Firearm Preemption Laws, the General Assembly has increased gun violence in these municipalities, and they have affirmatively endangered the lives, health and safety of the Individual Petitioners," the lawsuit states. "In creating and perpetuating this danger of their own making, Respondents have violated the inherent and indefeasible right to enjoy and defend life and liberty under Article 1, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution."

City officials, state lawmakers and public policy researchers joined together Wednesday in support of the lawsuit, which was announced at a Germantown playground that has been hit hard by gun violence over the past year. 

"Gun violence is taking an enormous toll on Pennsylvanians," said Mimi McKenzie, legal director at the Public Interest Law Center. "Young Black and Brown men are killed with handguns in numbers that shock the conscience. The General Assembly has been confronted with this evidence for years, but refuses to consider sensible measures that public health research and the experience of nearby states demonstrate would save lives."

The lawsuit asks the court to vacate the Firearm Preemption Laws so that Philadelphia and other municipalities may implement sensible and lawful measures to prevent gun violence.