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Pennsylvania Firearms Law Struck Down
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Pennsylvania Firearms Law Struck Down

Summary: A law that allowed residents and organizations to sue municipalities over gun laws has been struck down.

A state law that allowed Pennsylvania firearm owners and organizations to sue municipalities over gun-related regulations has been struck down. The law also allowed a prevailing plaintiff to receive attorneys’ fees, according to the Legal Intelligencer.

  
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An en banc panel of the Commonwealth Court ruled that Act 192 of 2014 was unconstitutionally enacted because it was altered to change its original intention, and that it did not cover a single subject.

Judge Robert Simpson wrote, “The original purpose of HB 80 pertained solely to the penalties for the theft of secondary metal, while the final purpose was altered so as to include, among other things, creation of a civil action through which to challenge local firearms legislation. Clearly, these are vastly different activities.”

Last year, a group of celebrities made a video to protest gun violence. 

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As for the single subject issue, the court stated that the objectives of the act “are so disparate that they lack any clear common nexus.” Those in opposition to striking down the bill had suggested “amending the crimes code,” but Simpson explained this was not sufficient to bring the law into compliance with Pennsylvania’s constitution.

In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Judge Patricia A. McCullough opined that Act 192, though it was altered from its original purpose, did not violate the single-subject requirement. She said, “Under the majority’s analysis, it is unclear how our legislature can amend the crimes code to comport with both the single-subject and original purpose rules. Obviously, the legislature needs a degree of flexibility to amend the crimes code in an efficient and effective manner, especially considering the daily stream of judicial opinions interpreting, applying, and entertaining constitutional challenges to its provisions.”



Act 192 passed after HB 80, which set out to define the criminal offense of theft of secondary metals. HB 80 was merged with language from HB 1243, according to the court. HB 1243 was supposed to amend the crimes code regarding firearms regulation. An amendment to that law included provisions that allowed gun advocates to challenge municipal legislation through the court system, Simpson noted.

 Last year, a Washington, D.C. judge struck down a ban on carrying handguns.

Tom Corbett, then-governor of Pennsylvania, signed the bill in November 2014. The law went into effect on January 5. Shortly after the law was passed, five members of the General Assembly filed a petition to prevent its enforcement. According to PennLive.com, the National Rifle Association also sued Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lancaster to force them to abandon their gun ordinances.

Martin J. Black of Dechert represented the petitioners on a pro bono basis. Robert L. Masterson served as co-counsel. Black said there was a great deal of litigation filed against municipalities when the law was enacted. Some cases have continued through Commonwealth Court litigation. Black commented, “The real mystery is why the legislature thought they could pass the law in this fashion.”

Black (L) and Masterson (R)

Black (L) and Masterson (R)

Drew Crompton, an attorney for another respondent, said that an appeal is likely. “There’s competing case law in this case on this issue. We’re always much more concerned with the precedent and how it affects the legislative branch.” He added that the petitioners “should be careful what they wish for,” noting the lawmaking precedent established.

Facebook changed its policies on gun sales through its social networks.

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Black added that the law has created a “chilling effect” as municipalities express growing concern about legal action. “Municipalities are spending money on unconstitutionally-brought litigation when there are other things to do with their money.” In fact, Pittsburgh has never even prosecuted anyone under its 2008 lost-and-stolen ordinance, for fear of a lawsuit in response, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported.

Crompton noted that state law already prevents municipalities from enforcing firearms ordinances. He explained, “It was already law but it was being disregarded by some municipalities. Gun advocates have believed that municipalities were creeping too far in light of the underlying law.”

In analyzing the original-intent requirement, the court compared the current case to Marcavage v. Rendell. In that case, a statute was challenged that began as a bill to amend the criminal code to list agricultural crop destruction as an offense, but the amended bill removed that term and expanded the scope of protected individuals within the definition of ethnic intimidation. Simpson wrote in the majority opinion, “Like the act at issue in Marcavage, the original and final versions of HB 80 do not regulate the same discrete activity.”

The court examined several other single-subject cases to determine whether “amending the crimes code” was a sufficient subject to unify Act 192. The Supreme Court, according to the majority, had previously established that “refining civil remedies,” “powers of county commissioners,” and “municipalities” were subjects that were too broad.

Although respondents argued that other cases were compatible with the constitution, Simpson noted that those cases involved the same subject, such as public utility regulation or proscribed acts under the Penal Code.

Respondents also argued that the act only dealt with amending the crimes code as it related to firearms regulation, but the court did not buy this argument. The court explained, “In the absence of any further clear explanation, we fail to discern how this posited theme supplies the necessary unifying topic between the disparate subjects of criminal penalties for theft of metal and civil suits through which an expansive class of parties may seek to invalidate municipal firearms legislation and potentially recover attorney fees.”

Source: The Legal Intelligencer

Photo credit: shouselaw.com, Dechert (Black, Masterson)

 



 

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