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Militia members stand on top of a roof at the corner of High and Market streets in Elizabethtown during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest on Saturday, June 6, 2020. The men were with the Carlisle Light Infantry, a militia group from Carlisle.

Reports of armed citizens in Lancaster County’s public spaces over the past several weeks have raised questions about when it’s legal to carry a firearm, and when.

Some members of two groups standing watch during a Black Lives Matter protest in Elizabethtown in June held rifles as they stood on rooftops. 

That same weekend, a man carrying a rifle shook hands with protesters and told a reporter he was just exercising his Second Amendment rights.

At another Black Lives Matters protest, a man was seen with a firearm as protesters marched as tensions ran high.

Most recently, a man who carried a rifle into Lancaster Central Market prompted sharp criticism from Mayor Danene Sorace and prompted market officials to bring in more security.

While it may be striking to see in public, openly carrying a firearm is perfectly legal in Pennsylvania except for certain areas.

Here’s a look at what Pennsylvania state law says about buying a firearm, openly carrying a firearm and carrying a concealed firearm:

Who can buy a firearm?

A firearm can be purchased by anyone who is at least 18 years old. 

Who is prohibited from purchasing a firearm?

Undocumented immigrants, people who have been convicted of a violent crime, people who are declared mentally ill, are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol or who are fugitives are prohibited from owning firearms.

Those convicted of three separate DUI charges within a three-year period or are subject to an active protection from abuse order are also prohibited from owning firearms.

How do you purchase a firearm?

There are more than 2,700 federally-licensed firearms dealers in Pennsylvania, 60 of which are in Lancaster County, according to state police data. Regardless of what type of firearm is being purchased, customers must fill out an application that asks for basic information as well as questions about their criminal and mental health history.

Then, the firearms dealer will plug that information into the Pennsylvania Instant Check System (PICS) to determine if the buyer is eligible to own a firearm. There is usually a fee associated with the application process.

Implemented in 1998, PICS provides instant access to background records on an individual to determine if they’re eligible to own a firearm or a license to carry a firearm.

Firearms can also be purchased at a gun show from a federally licensed dealer, which would involve a background check.

Purchasing from someone who is not a federally licensed dealer, however, is a little different. Someone can privately purchase a long gun, such as a shotgun or a rifle, without having to go through a background check if they buy it from a private individual. Despite not needing a background check, it is illegal to sell a firearm to someone who is otherwise prohibited from owning one, regardless of if the seller is aware of disqualifying factors or not.

For private handgun purchases, the buyer and seller would need to go to a federally licensed firearms dealer to complete a firearms transfer.

What do I need in order to carry a concealed firearm?

A license to carry firearms is issued so a person can carry a firearm concealed “on one’s person or in a vehicle” within Pennsylvania.

If you don’t have a license to carry but want to transport your firearm in your car, you would need to carry the unloaded firearm and ammunition in two separate containers inside the vehicle.

Who can carry a concealed firearm?

State law states that anyone who is 21 years old or older can apply for a license to carry firearms at the sheriff’s office of the county they reside in.

For Lancaster County, there’s a $20 fee per application.

Once the application has been submitted, the sheriff must issue the license to carry firearms within 45 days unless the Pennsylvania Instant Check System shows there are records that indicate the person is prohibited from owning a firearm.

“In accordance with 18 PA C.S. §6109, a sheriff may deny an individual the right to a License to Carry Firearms if there is reason to believe that the character and reputation of the individual are such that they would be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety,” according to state police’s website. “If the PICS check is approved and the subject is of good character, the sheriff may issue a License to Carry Firearms.”

Once issued, a license is valid for five years unless sooner revoked.

Pennsylvania State Police reports that 9,679 licenses to carry firearms were issued in Lancaster County 2019.

When is an application denied?

There are a number of reasons why a license may not be issued, including:

  • An individual “whose character and reputation” is such that the individual would be likely to act dangerously in public.

  • An individual has been convicted of an offense under the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act of 1972, or adjudicated delinquent for a crime in the last 10 years.

  • Being convicted of a crime relating to persons not to possess, use, manufacture, control, sell or transfer firearms, or adjudicated delinquent for a crime in the last 10 years.

  • An individual who is “not of sound mind” or has ever been committed to a mental institution.

  • An individual who is a “habitual drunkard.”

Once issued, a license is valid for five years unless sooner revoked.

Where can I openly carry a firearm?

As long as you’re a law-abiding citizen and are allowed to carry a firearm, you can openly carry a firearm in public places.

State law requires people openly carrying a firearm to have a license to carry in “cities of the first class,” or cities with a population of over one million. The only first-class city in Pennsylvania is Philadelphia.

It also generally accepted that it is not legal to carry a firearm onto private property if the owner or a representative has requested or posted that no firearms are permitted. 

Where can’t I openly carry a firearm?

Open and concealed carrying of firearms is prohibited in schools, courthouses, federal buildings or prisons. Although, a person with a LTCF (concealed carry license) may carry a concealed firearm in Pa. state parks.

Can I wear a mask while carrying a firearm?

While in some states it's illegal, there's no statute that prohibits wearing a mask while carrying a firearm. 

Lancaster County Sheriff Christopher Leppler confirmed that there's no Pennsylvania law that criminalizes carrying a firearm while masked.  

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