Commonwealth Court has overturned a state law allowing gun enthusiasts and groups like the National Rifle Association to sue municipalities over local gun ordinances, reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Act 192 of 2014 allowed state residents eligible to own a gun, or a group representing them, to challenge local gun ordinances anywhere in the state. If the plaintiffs prevailed, the municipality would have to pay their legal fees.
On Thursday, though, a seven-judge panel of the appellate court ruled that Act 192 violated constitutional rules governing the legislative process.
Senate Republicans say an appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely.
The court’s decision hinged on two constitutional provisions. One, the “single-subject rule,” requires that a bill’s provisions relate to a single topic. The second rule says bills cannot deviate from their original purpose during the legislative process.
Act 192 began as a measure establishing penalties for the theft of metals, such as copper and aluminum: The gun provisions were added in the final days of the 2014 legislative calendar. That addition, wrote Judge Robert Simpson for the majority, “clearly, palpably and plainly violates” the constitution.
While the ruling’s language is technical, Act 192 foes said the near-unanimous decision sent a strong message. Even the lone dissenter, Patricia A. McCullough, concurred in the final result, though on a more limited basis.
“We respectfully disagree with what the court has done,” said attorney Jonathan Goldstein, who represents the NRA in its lawsuit against Pittsburgh, and similar suits filed against Philadelphia and Lancaster. But “these ordinances were illegal ... prior to Act 192, and they remain illegal.” He said the NRA was considering its next step, adding that despite the ruling, “There are other bases for challenging these ordinances.”
Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said such cases would either be tossed out or put on hiatus pending appeal. “If your lawsuit is premised on a statute that goes away, the lawsuit goes away,” he said.
Locally, the ruling will have little immediate impact. Pittsburgh is among the Pennsylvania cities with “lost and stolen” laws requiring residents to tell police if their guns go missing. But although the NRA sued over that law under Act 192, a judge halted the case while the constitutional challenge was pending.
Of course, there’s nothing to prevent legislators from resubmitting Act 192’s gun provisions in a new bill.
“We’re going to have a lot of members who will want to pursue a legislative remedy,” said Drew Crompton, the general counsel to Senate Republicans.
Bring it on, said gun-control advocates. “I think it will be a lot harder to pass this time around,” said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire PA. “People have seen their towns get sued: They know a lot more about it now.”
Despite the Commonwealth Court decision, Act 192 has already had an impact. Fearing costly litigation, many municipalities removed gun-control ordinances as it went into effect earlier this year. But Castle Shannon Mayor Donald Baumgarten, a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said his municipality now might restore its lost-and-stolen ordinance.
“I certainly think we would put the law back on the books,” he said, though the borough would likely wait to see how a potential appeal plays out.
“Because who knows?” he said. “The Supreme Court could reverse it again.”
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