House panel approves four gun-related bills

HARRISBURG – Four gun-related bills are on their way to the floor of the state House of Representatives after a Tuesday morning meeting of the House Judiciary Committee.

Of the four bills, the one that generated the most debate, and which won committee approval on a 20-5 vote, would give legal standing to individuals and member organizations to legally challenge local gun ordinances.

“When you’re going from community to community, how can you possibly know what the law is and how they’ve changed? You have to have some kind of remedy. These bills have to be done by the state so the people of the commonwealth understand that there’s uniformity,” said Rep. Dom Costa, D-Allegheny.

“We can’t have local municipalities going out and making their own laws,” said Costa.

Bill supporters said current state law, backed up by both the Pennsylvania Constitution and U.S. Constitution, places the ability to regulate firearms solely in the hands of the state, thereby preempting any ordinances imposed by local municipalities.

However, that has not prevented several Pennsylvania municipalities from enacting their own gun-related ordinances, which, under current law, cannot be challenged by residents or organizations within those municipalities.

House Bill 2011’s supporters say the legislation seeks to address that situation by giving individuals and member organizations legal standing in court to challenge those ordinances, even if no criminal charges have been filed, due to the local ordinance, against the individual or anyone else in the municipality.

“The reason the standing change has to occur is because no municipality is using it [their ordinance],” said Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, regarding some specific ordinances – called “lost or stolen” ordinances – that have been enacted by local municipalities. A “lost or stolen” ordinance requires gun owners to report, within a time frame specified in the ordinance, when a gun they own has been lost or stolen, with the primary purpose of the ordinance to combat straw purchasers, who legally buy firearms and then provide them to individuals who cannot legally own such weapons.

“I’m not aware of any municipality that has ever actually enforced it, and that’s part of the problem: If it were enforced, ever, then someone could raise the issue of whether it’s constitutional,” said Stephens.

HB 2011 would also allow any party who successfully challenges a local firearm ordinance to seek reimbursement from the local municipality for “reasonable” attorneys fees and costs to bring the lawsuit and any loss of income suffered because of the ordinance.

Opponents of the legislation argue some local gun ordinances, such as the popular “lost or stolen” ordinances approved by several Pennsylvania municipalities, are not necessarily pre-empted by state law.

And they claim this legislation would give those who oppose “gun safety” measures an opportunity to target municipalities that pass their own ordinances.

“I have concerns the first piece of legislation today gave Philadelphia tools that it needs to deal with its gun violence epidemic, and a lot of municipalities in the [Philadelphia] suburbs have taken action on their own to start bringing some sanity to our lost or stolen situation with straw weapons and guns that are floating [around] out there,” said Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery. “And the idea that we would give Philadelphia these tools and take them away or, frankly, make our local municipalities a target of potentially frivolous lawsuits from groups like the NRA [National Rifle Association] it’s logically inconsistent and probably abhorrent to a lot of us.

“I think this is bad legislation and should be rejected,” he said.

Referencing the first bill approved during the meeting, House Bill 1091, which created tougher penalties for people illegally in possession of a firearm in Philadelphia, Stephens, the bill’s sponsor, said HB 2011 was not inconsistent with HB 1091.

“We do have the ability to bring up these other potential regulations in the General Assembly as we did with Philadelphia,” said Stephens. “So the General Assembly provided that remedy for Philadelphia, and the General Assembly could provide remedies to other municipalities, so you can offer those suggestions.”

HB 1091, which the committee approved on a vote of 23-2, would establish a new mandatory minimum sentence of two years for any person who is not licensed or authorized to carry a firearm and who is found to be in possession of a firearm in Philadelphia.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, said his legislation “targets criminals and criminal activity, specifically, in the City of Philadelphia.”

“These are the folks who are putting a gun in their waistband and going out on the streets of Philadelphia with a gun that is not theirs and they don’t have the legal permit to carry,” said Taylor of those who are the focus of the legislation.

He said his bill is similar to a law passed for New York City that appears to have had a positive impact on violent crime in that city. Many within Pennsylvania law enforcement have expressed a hope this legislation could be a major tool to attack violent crime in Philadelphia, said Taylor.

The committee also voted 23-2 to report out another bill containing a mandatory minimum provision, House Bill 1498.

The legislation would impose a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for felons who illegally possess firearms.

Additionally, HB 1498 would designate the crime of a felon illegally possessing a gun as a “crime of violence” that would trigger the state’s second strike (10-year mandatory minimum) and third strike (25-year mandatory minimum) provisions. Currently Pennsylvania has no mandatory minimum sentence for felons who illegally possess firearms.

The bill is similar to one approved by the House during the last legislative session on a 190-7 vote. A fiscal note prepared for that legislation indicated an additional 203 individuals would be incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons due to the statutory change.

The committee also unanimously approved legislation, House Bill 1243, that would require the Pennsylvania State Police to send all of the agency’s existing mental health data within 90 days to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is utilized to check the background of individuals attempting to acquire a firearm nationwide. The bill would additionally require ongoing submissions to the national database within 48 hours of the state police receiving mental health data.

The bill was also amended to included provisions regarding the restoration of the right to own a firearm for those prevented from doing so because of a mental condition.

Some concerns were raised regarding the bill’s provision that a person would have to wait at least two years before making application to a Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas for the restoration of their right to own a firearm.

“I certainly agree with the underlying purpose of the bill, the part that gives me a little bit of pause is the two-year requirement,” said Rep. Jesse White, D-Washington. “It appears that we’re telling a Pennsylvania resident they are barred from access to the courts for a period of two years, which, to me, is a little bit troubling.”

Stephens, the bill’s sponsor, said the restoration provisions were requested by the state police, but “they are willing to discuss” the issue regarding an appropriate amount of time “for an individual to accumulate the record necessary to convince the court that they are now of sound mind and capable of safely possessing a firearm.”