Frustration mounts over state law that bans gun reforms

Justine McDaniel
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Calls for new laws to prevent gun violence, spurred nationwide in recent weeks by mass shootings, echoed in Philadelphia following Saturday’s mass shooting on South Street.

But a state law prohibits the city from passing gun-control measures.

The preemption law, which the city has repeatedly sought to overturn, bans municipalities from passing gun-control measures that are stricter than state gun laws. The city is poised to soon challenge it in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Removes key tools: Gun-control advocates and city leaders say the state law takes away key tools Philadelphia could be using to combat its gun violence crisis.

“There’s a lot of solutions out there, and our hands are just incredibly tied,” said Max Weisman, a spokesperson for City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who attended a discussion on gun violence Monday with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D.-Pa., and Philadelphia school students.

As the city remains unable to make its own laws, the Republican-led Pennsylvania legislature consistently declines to take up gun control legislation, with the exception of a bill targeting domestic abusers in 2018.

The inaction in Harrisburg means the city can’t rely on the legislature to implement gun control. And the state’s law means that passing citywide gun control legislation isn’t an option for Philadelphia to address its ongoing gun violence crisis, despite renewed calls for doing so in the wake of the deadly South Street shooting.

“People are dying in unconscionable numbers due to gun violence here,” City Council President Darrell L. Clarke said Monday. “If Harrisburg won’t help us, it should get out of the way and let Philly pass stronger, commonsense gun laws to protect our citizens.”

Lawsuits: The state’s preemption of local gun ordinances was upheld by the Commonwealth Court in decisions two weeks ago in two separate lawsuits, one out of Philadelphia and one out of Pittsburgh. That court also upheld it in a February decision in a separate Philadelphia case.

The city appealed that case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in March, and Clarke said he expects the city’s other case to reach the state’s highest court also.

Mayor Jim Kenney has said the law keeps the city from being able to address the worsening gun violence crisis. Supporters of preemption say it ensures gun rules are the same statewide.

Gun violence: The Saturday shooting on South Street left more people hit by gunfire than any other gun incident in the city since at least 2015. Multiple gunmen fired into crowds mingling on South Street around 11:30 p.m. Saturday. Three people were killed, including one of the men who fired shots, and 11 were wounded.

Much more common are the city’s chronic incidents of gun violence — the shootings that wound or kill people weekly, repeatedly tearing apart families and cutting lives short. In the 10 days preceding Monday, 94 people were shot in separate incidents in Philadelphia.

After the South Street shooting, Democratic lawmakers who have long been calling for gun control criticized their Republican colleagues. Democrats have introduced dozens of measures aimed at preventing gun violence in recent years, and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has urged the legislature to pass laws to require background checks on all gun sales, require prompt reporting of lost and stolen guns, prevent firearm access for people in mental health crises and take other steps.

“House Democrats have introduced OVER SIXTY bills to address gun violence and Republicans will not allow us to move even one,” State Rep. Malcom Kenyatta tweeted. “This is not a both sides thing. House and Senate Democrats are ready to act RIGHT NOW on guns.”

State Sen. Nikil Saval, a Democrat who represents the South Street area, said voters should unseat legislators who are “unwilling to move on an issue of this magnitude.”

Republican response: The Republican leaders of the House and Senate said Monday that addressing the gun violence problem does not require new laws, but stronger enforcement in the city of existing ones. Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward suggested in a statement that advancing gun legislation after shootings would be advancing “a partisan policy agenda” that “does nothing to honor the memory of the lives lost.”

“Philadelphia’s gun violence crisis is not a problem of not having enough laws on the books, it is instead a crisis of leadership that stems from the city leaders’ and the District Attorney’s Office’s refusal to enforce the gun crime laws already at their disposal,” said Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for Republican House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff.

Republicans blamed Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a Democrat under whom the conviction rate of people charged with illegal possessions has dropped. Krasner and Harrisburg Republicans have for years feuded over who is to blame for rising rates of gun violence in the city.

Krasner has defended his office’s record, saying there’s little evidence people arrested for nonviolent gun offenses go on to commit shootings and that Republicans bear responsibility for weak gun regulations that have led to the proliferation of firearms in the city.

Two of three shooters identified by police Monday had permits to carry firearms, prosecutors said, while the third used a ghost gun. Another suspected shooter remained unidentified by police, who were still investigating.

The preemption case the city has taken to the state Supreme Court stemmed from a challenge to the city’s ordinance requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms. The Commonwealth Court ruled in February that the ordinance was illegal under state law, and the city petitioned the Supreme Court in March.

Separately, the city and gun control nonprofit CeaseFirePA sued Pennsylvania, claiming the legislature’s inaction on gun laws violates Philadelphians’ constitutional right to life. The appeals panel upheld the state’s preemption in a May 26 decision.

The case in Pittsburgh could also go to the state Supreme Court. In that case, gun-rights groups sued the city for passing gun-control ordinances following the 2018 shooting at the city’s Tree of Life synagogue. The Commonwealth Court’s May 27 decision in that case also upheld preemption.

Even as judges upheld the state law, however, a couple of them noted the national problem with gun violence in their opinions.

Senior Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, one of the Republican judges that upheld the ruling against Philadelphia’s lost-and-stolen ordinance, urged the state Supreme Court to reconsider the legal precedent. “Local conditions may well justify more severe restrictions than are necessary statewide,” she wrote.