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Gun rights group threatens legal action if Manheim Township bans gun shops near schools

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A statewide gun rights group is threatening legal action if Manheim Township approves a private school’s request to establish school zones where guns may not be sold.

An attorney for Firearm Owners Against Crime, in a letter to the township, says enacting the zoning amendment “would be unlawful” and “constitute a criminal offense.”

Joshua Prince, a Berks County attorney representing the group, said the state Constitution and state law prohibit municipalities from regulating firearms, including setting up a gun-shop-free school zone.

An official response from Manheim Township was not available Wednesday.

If the five-member board of commissioners approves the measure, Prince said, he will file private criminal complaints against commissioners who vote for it. He also will file a civil suit against the township, he said.

The commissioners have scheduled a vote for Monday, Jan. 27, on Lancaster Country Day School’s request to prohibit retail firearms sales within 1,000 feet of the lot lines of all schools and educational institutions in the township.

In addition, no outdoor signs depicting firearms would be allowed within the zone.

“Only (Pennsylvania’s) General Assembly can regulate firearms,” Prince told LNP, explaining the group’s position. “The General Assembly could permit municipalities to regulate firearms (through zoning), but they haven’t done that.”

Lancaster Country Day School, at 725 Hamilton Road, petitioned the township for the buffer after The Gun Gallery in February 2018 relocated from Millersville to the former Reifsnyder’s piano store at 1020 Dillerville Road, near the school.

The gun shop has since closed, and the property is now part of the site of a proposed diner.


Country Day response

Joshua Cohen, an attorney representing Lancaster Country Day School, called it “unfortunate” that the gun rights group “is resorting to threats and intimidation in place of civil debate and respect for our institutions of government.”

Cohen expressed confidence that Pennsylvania courts would uphold the proposal “because it is a zoning ordinance ... not an anti-gun ordinance.”

He cited a state Supreme Court decision last year to not hear the appeal of a gun range that unsuccessfully argued that Philadelphia’s zoning code unlawfully prohibited it from selling guns.

Asked if Country Day expects Manheim Township to fund a legal defense, Cohen said he’d like the commissioners “to consider the threat and decide whether it’s worthwhile to promote a safe and effective learning environment in our schools.”


Gun rights group

Firearm Owners Against Crime, based in Allegheny County, describes itself as a non-partisan, all-volunteer political action committee with membership across the state.

Prince said he has successfully represented the group in other legal actions against municipalities seeking to regulate guns.

Most recently, Prince said, an Allegheny County Common Pleas judge in October struck down three gun control ordinances enacted by Pittsburgh after the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.

The judge agreed with the gun rights group that state law prevented the city from regulating firearms.


Vote postponed to January

The township commissioners Monday night postponed a scheduled vote on the school buffer zone, rescheduling it to Monday, Jan. 27, to allow newly elected board members to participate in the decision.

Democrats Barry Kauffman and Allison Troy won election in November and will take office in January. They are replacing Republicans David Heck and Al Kling, who lost re-election. Kling voted no on rescheduling the vote.

“I think passing this thing is a mistake,” Kling said Wednesday. “I think there’ll be more legal action (if passed), all of which has to be paid for by the taxpayers. To me, it’s silly because there’s no gun store.”

“If Country Day School cared about their community, I think they’d withdraw” the request, Kling added.

Commissioner Sam Mecum in an email to LNP called it "outrageous" that Prince would threaten private criminal charges against the commissioners "for simply doing our jobs." He added that the threat is "itself, in my opinion, a possible criminal act of threatening a public official."

"No private criminal prosecution based on the commissioners acting in the normal course of their duties would ever be approved by the District Attorney of Lancaster County," Mecum added. "I say this as a practicing attorney with 45 years of experience."

Commissioners-elect Kauffman and Troy declined comment ahead of having a chance to study the issue.