NRA may challenge lost-gun ordinance

Mayor Rick Gray

An official with the National Rifle Association said Monday that his organization might challenge Lancaster's new firearms ordinance.

"I don't want to say what we're going to do, but we're litigating similar laws in two cities in the state right now," said John Hohenwater, a Harrisburg-based liaison for the NRA. "It certainly is an option available to us."

City Council unanimously passed a law on June 9 requiring gun owners living in the city to report lost or stolen firearms to the police within 72 hours after they discover their weapons are missing. Violations carry a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail.

Approving the ordinance put Lancaster in line with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Allentown, Reading, Pottsville and Wilkinsburg, which all have similar laws.

Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray said the ordinance is intended to "take away the excuse" most commonly used by people who buy guns legally in order to sell them illegally to convicted criminals who cannot buy guns themselves - a practice called "straw purchasing."

"When a gun one of these guys bought and sold turns up after it's been used in a crime, they like to say they lost the gun or it was stolen, but they just never got around to reporting it," Gray said. "This ordinance takes away that excuse."

The NRA is challenging Philadelphia's and Pittsburgh's laws in Commonwealth Court, arguing that the local ordinances illegally preempt the state's authority to regulate guns.

The state firearms law includes a clause prohibiting local governments from regulating the ownership and use of guns.

Gray said the state law pertains to gun ownership and that Lancaster's ordinance has nothing to do with that.

"We're not saying anything about people's right to own guns," he said. "We're focused on what people do when their guns are lost or stolen."

According to Hohenwater, Lancaster's ordinance is pointless and targets "honest" gun owners.

"All it's going to do is criminalize the victim of a crime," he said. "And it's silly to think charging someone with a summary offense is going to help stop crime."

"Honest" gun owners, Hohenwater said, who have guns stolen that they don't know about will be the ones who end up being cited.

That's a concern to Joe Keffer, owner of The Sportsman's Shop in New Holland, which sells a wide variety of handguns and long guns.

"I think any responsible individual who is aware of a gun being lost or stolen is going to report it," he said. "I have a problem with a law that can potentially make a victim of a crime a criminal."

Gray said that argument is "ridiculous."

Under the ordinance, gun owners have 72 hours from the time they discover a missing weapon to report it.

"If they don't know it's missing, then that 72-hour clock never starts," he said. "The burden of proof would be on the police to prove the person knew the gun was missing, and that would be really difficult."

Besides, Gray said, how often do people have guns stolen and they don't discover the theft before they turn up in criminal investigations?

Even more ludicrous, he said, is the idea that people "lose" guns.

"How many guns are ever really lost?" he said. "That's like me losing one of my motorcycles.

"The vast, vast majority of gun owners are honest people. We have no interest in prosecuting them."

The bigger issue, Hohenwater said, is that ordinances like Lancaster's are illegal.

"You can't have cities passing their own laws," he said. "That's why you don't see cities setting the speed limit at 80 miles per hour."

Gray admitted the courts might ultimately agree with the NRA's position.

"And if they say we can't do it, then we won't," he said. "That's something the court will decide."

E-mail: preilly@lnpnews.com

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