A bill pending in the state House of Representatives will open the door for lawsuits against Lancaster city and 29 other Pennsylvania municipalities.
The bill, which is scheduled for debate Monday, would allow any Pennsylvania gun owner or a membership organization such as the National Rifle Association to sue municipalities with ordinances regulating firearms or ammunition.
Lancaster city and other cities, boroughs and townships across the state have passed local ordinances requiring gun owners who discover their firearm was lost or stolen to report the loss to police.
Lancaster City Council passed the ordinance in 2009, after the General Assembly failed to act on a statewide lost or stolen gun reporting requirement the year before.
Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray, who advocated for the ordinance five years ago, said the measure is aimed at people who legally buy guns and then resell them to convicted felons or others who cannot legally purchase a gun.
“All it does is take an excuse away from people who would buy guns and sell them in a straw-purchase to people who would use them illegally,” Gray said.
“The guns are traced back to the originally buyer, and he or she says ‘oh, I’ve lost sight of it. That gun was stolen,’ ” said Gray, who is the state chairman of the national anti-gun violence group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Backers of House Bill 2011, however, contend the issue is that Lancaster and other municipalities are preempting state powers. The state — not municipalities — has the power to regulate firearms.
“Several municipalities have ordinances that are illegal and unfortunately, that causes confusion for law-abiding citizens that carry firearms,” said state Rep. Bryan Cutler, who is one of the bill’s sponsors.
Cutler, a Republican who represents the 100th District in southern Lancaster County, is a member of the House judiciary committee. That committee voted last week to send the bill to the full House of Representatives for consideration.
He was optimistic it will be passed.
Cutler said the bill is needed because there is currently no mechanism to challenge the municipal ordinances. Doing so in court requires the gun owner to be arrested or cited and municipalities have not enforced their ordinances, he said.
Cutler said he does not see the need for the municipal ordinances. There are state and federal laws already in place. The problem, he said, is those are also not being enforced.
“We already have existing laws on straw purchases that are not being enforced,” said Cutler. “I firmly believe we should enforce the existing laws on straw purchases before we start adding additional layers of laws.”
State Rep. Mindy Fee, another co-sponsor, indicated in an email message that the bill was broader than the lost-or-stolen gun ordinances.
Fee, whose 37th District covers the northern part of the county, referred to municipal measures that restrict the carrying of firearms in certain places.
“It's confusing now for law-abiding individuals who have a license to carry to be able to move throughout the commonwealth and not know whether they're in violation of a specific gun ordinance that a particular municipality has passed. They could end up in court over such a matter,” wrote Fee.
State Reps. Dave Hickernell and Ryan Aument are also co-sponsors of the measure. Hickernell was traveling on Friday and unavailable for comment. Aument did not respond to a phone call or email message.
A pair of similar measures regarding municipal gun ordinances were proposed two years ago. They did not advance to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote.
One of those measures was more putative. It would have allowed for a gun owner suing a city to collect triple their amount of damages and reimbursement of attorney fees and costs even if the municipality repealed the ordinance before a ruling was made in the case.
The current proposal allows for a judge to require the municipality to repay the litigant’s costs. Again, that includes if the ordinance has been repealed.
If a city wins a legal challenge, it cannot recoup its costs.
Gray, a former defense attorney, said the bill is unusual in that it does not require someone to be cited under the municipal ordinances to challenge them.
In legalese, typically an “aggrieved party” has to be hurt, injured or damaged in some way to seek relief from the court.
“There has to be an issue. You can’t just go out and file a suit because you don’t happen to like a law,” said Gray.
The bill follows the National Rifle Association’s 2011 challenge to Pittsburgh’s lost or stolen ordinance. That case went to the state Supreme Court before justices ruled the organization did not have standing to make the challenge, newspaper records show.