Shooting Down Local Laws

corbett
Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signs House Bill 80 into law. Source: Joe Hermitt

Local and state governments have constantly engaged in a battle over legislative power, perpetuating a struggle that blurs the line of influence each level of government has. Fortunately, Pennsylvania recently took a strong initial step towards establishing the authority of state power with the passage of its firearms preemption ordinance.

Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett (R) recently signed House Bill 80 into law this past October, the strongest firearms preemption statute in the country. House Bill 80 provides a way for gun owners in the Keystone State to hold municipalities accountable for infringing upon the Second Amendment rights of citizens. This piece of legislation seeks to maintain consistency in the state’s firearms and ammunition laws by allowing citizens and membership organizations to seek legal remedies against local municipalities acting in direct violation of state law.

In 2012, several local Pennsylvania municipalities enacted gun laws stronger than and inconsistent with Pennsylvania state laws. The NRA, in an effort to promote consistency and to uphold the supremacy of Pennsylvania state law, attempted to sue these local communities. However, the NRA’s lawsuit was dismissed because the state did not have laws that preempted local gun restrictions, even though Pennsylvania has a state preemption statute specifically stating:

(a)  General rule.–No county, municipality or township may in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components when carried or transported for purposes not prohibited by the laws of this Commonwealth.

This wording denotes that local counties do not possess the ability to pass firearms laws inconsistent with state laws. However, there were no teeth to this provision. There have been no penalties imposed on local governments who blatantly violated the law, as no methods were in place to subject these jurisdictions to any means of punishment. NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said. “That’s the underlying issue here: These local governments are defying state law, and there’s no mechanism to hold them accountable.”

Fortunately, HB 80 contains stronger provisions in its newest ordinance, establishing state law as the dominant precedent for firearms ordinances. The bill strictly prevents local municipalities from imposing conflicting ordinances by reimbursing any party who successfully challenges the illegal ordinances for their attorney fees, costs to bring the lawsuit, and any loss of income suffered because of the ordinance. This state preemption statute will prevent local governments from creating a complicated and possibly confusing patchwork of local firearm laws. Promoting a sense of uniformity among local districts would thus effectively chill the limitation of Second Amendment rights in the State.

Pennsylvania has also made sure to pass a strict statute in order to avoid loopholes seen in other states’ firearms preemption statutes, particularly that of Ohio. Like Pennsylvania, Ohio’s original statute prevented local ordinances from enacting gun laws more restrictive than the state’s. For example, a city could not ban assault weapons or ban guns in public parks.

However, in Ohio, if local jurisdictions that had violated Second Amendment rights were sued, cities could wait until prosecutors had spent time and legal resources before they repealed the law, allowing the prosecution no opportunity to collect their legal fees. Such a process, although successful in preventing local jurisdictions from intentionally bypassing state firearms laws, was inefficient and a financial burden for Second Amendment supporters.

In order to prevent cities from bypassing this loophole, Ohio Representative Terry Johnson (R) proposed and passed a bill that contained a provision stating that if a city repeals a gun ordinance, it would still owe the challenger $100 per day from the time the lawsuit was filed. According to Johnson, the inability for prosecutors to recover their legal fees had a demoralizing effect on challenging “something that should not be happening.”

Because of the easily exploitable loophole seen in Ohio’s original firearms preemption statute, Pennsylvania has taken a transformative first step in setting a precedent states should follow in the future. By enacting a strict firearms ordinance, the Keystone State has prevented local municipalities from illegally bypassing state law. Those that do will finally be held accountable and punished for their actions. Pennsylvania has certainly come a long way from the past, adding provisions to promote or uniformity in state gun laws. It has learned from the failure of its past precedents and the mistakes of other states like Ohio to pass a law that is now the strongest firearms preemption statute in the country.

Perhaps the authority of state law in reference to firearms will continue to carry over to other areas of the law. Maintaining equilibrium between local and state power requires consistency in terms of legislation, and thus methods of enforcement and accountability are necessary for preventing an imbalance in this threshold. Pennsylvania has taken a strong first step and has set an exemplary precedent in establishing the authority of the state over local municipalities by passing House Bill 80.