City gun statute targeted - LancasterOnline: News

City gun statute targeted

Limits one’s defense options, lawyer says

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Posted: Saturday, February 7, 2009 12:54 am | Updated: 5:21 pm, Wed Sep 11, 2013.

Charges against a city man who fired a pistol into the air to stop a group from assaulting his cousin should be dropped because the city ordinance limiting the discharge of guns flies in the face of state law and the Constitution, the defendant's attorney told a county judge during a hearing Friday.

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Lancaster city's revised gunfire ordinance unconstitutionally restricts the right to protect oneself and others, a lawyer argued at a hearing Friday.

Attorney Hobie Crystle told county Judge Joseph Madenspacher that the charge filed under the city's ordinance against his client, Curtis L. Swinton, should be dismissed.

Representing the city, attorney Neil L. Albert said the city is entitled to regulate firearms discharge under state law and the charge against Swinton is appropriate.

Both attorneys agree that Swinton, 25, of the 100 block of South Pearl Street, fired a revolver at about 1:45 a.m. Dec. 30, 2007, in the parking lot of the House of Pizza restaurant, 23 W. Chestnut St., as alleged in a police affidavit.

Swinton said his cousin was being attacked and beaten by a group of assailants and that he fired a warning shot to disperse them. He had a concealed-carry permit for the gun.

Police charged Swinton with reckless endangerment and illegal discharge of a firearm. The latter is a crime under an ordinance that City Council strengthened in 2007 at the urging of Mayor Rick Gray. Each shot - even a blank - is a separate offense and can result in a $500 fine and 90 days in jail. Swinton is the first person to be charged under the amended ordinance.

State law gives a person the right to fire a gun if he or she believes another person is in imminent threat of serious harm, Crystle said. The city ordinance, in contrast, says shooting is justified only in defense of one's home, business or "human life." The city can't deny a right to Swinton that he has under state law, Crystle said.

Albert told Madenspacher that there's no state pre-emption of the city's right to say when and how firearms may be fired. Municipalities are not allowed to regulate the ownership or transfer of guns, but they can regulate how guns are used.

Albert said the city's ordinance allows gunfire in a broader range of circumstances than the state's law does. He said Swinton's reason for shooting is a question to be settled at trial, not a rationale for dismissing the charge.

Madenspacher told the attorneys he did not think the city's ordinance is unconstitutional. However, he still could rule that it cannot be applied in Swinton's case, both attorneys said after the hearing.

The two sides have 14 days to file briefs, after which Madenspacher will rule.

Gray, who has repeatedly stressed the importance of public safety to the city's quality of life, is taking "a strong personal interest" in the case, Albert said. Gray attended Friday's hearing but did not address the court.

Swinton initially pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct in August 2008, but he withdrew the plea in November, and a trial is pending. He did not attend Friday's hearing.

Crystle said later that the city ordinance wrongly limits a person's options when someone comes under serious physical attack: "You can't fire a gun until you think they're going to kill him." Nor does the law make an exception for accidental discharge, he said.

Albert said there was no justification for Swinton's shot. He said the man had reasonable alternative courses of action, such as running to the city police station, which is next to the pizza shop.

Swinton fired a shot "for no compelling reason," Albert said, and it was only by luck that no one was hurt.

"Safety shouldn't depend on luck," he said.

E-mail: tstuhldreher@lnpnews.com

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