A bill floating around the state legislature would punish municipalities that have passed laws regulating firearms, including controversial lost-or-stolen handgun ordinances. The bill would require them to pay legal fees and damages to people who sue local governments for enacting measures that supersede state law.
Gun-rights activists hail the bill as a way to thwart what they consider to be overreaching gun-control measures, which cities like Pittsburgh — one of the first major cities to enact the measure — aren't even enforcing. Critics of the bill, meanwhile, call it "cowardly," arguing that it will force municipalities to choose between protecting their communities and paying off the National Rifle Association.
"This is a threat to cities," says Max Nacheman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, an anti-gun-violence group. "They're trying to crack down on towns that aren't following the agenda of the NRA."
House Bill 1523, introduced by state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) last May, allows a person charged under one of these so-called anti-gun regulations to sue the municipality that enacted the ordinance and extract legal fees and civil damages.
The legislation, expected to come up for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee this month, would impose the financial punishment on a rising scale, depending on how and when the local government addresses the lawsuit. If the ordinance is rescinded within 30 days of the legal action, but before a judge makes a ruling in the case, the local government would have to reimburse the plaintiff for "actual damages" and attorney fees.
If the ordinance isn't withdrawn before the court rules in favor of the plaintiff, that financial punishment is triple the actual damage plus attorneys' fee.
Metcalfe's bill, which currently has 45 co-sponsors, is particularly disconcerting to cities and townships that have enacted lost-or-stolen handgun ordinances in the past few years. Pittsburgh's measure, passed in 2008, requires gun owners whose firearms are lost or stolen to report the incident within 72 hours. The law is meant to fight "straw purchasing" — weapons being bought legally and then sold or given to people unable to make a legal purchase.
To date, 30 municipalities, including Philadelphia, West Mifflin and Wilkinsburg, have passed similar laws.
"[Metcalfe's bill] makes no sense to me," says Pittsburgh City Councilor Bruce Kraus, who helped pass the city's lost-or-stolen handgun ordinance. "Here you have an elected official encouraging individuals to bring lawsuits against government."
"It's confusing," agrees West Mifflin Mayor Chris Kelly. Under the legislation, he says, "The borough [would be] penalized for trying to make the streets safer."
In 2009, the NRA sued Pittsburgh over its lost-or-stolen handgun ordinance. But a Common Pleas judge dismissed the lawsuit because the NRA didn't have standing to challenge an ordinance that had yet to be enforced by the city.
The absence of enforcement has resulted in some finger-pointing. Police officials have said they have yet to charge anyone under the law because they're awaiting an enforcement "protocol" from the city's law department. The law department, in turn, has countered that the police don't need any special directives to begin charging people under the ordinance.
"Pittsburgh desperately needed their lost-or-stolen [handgun] ordinance, but no one has been charged under it," says Kim Stolfer, a supporter of Metcalfe's legislation who chairs Firearms Owners Against Crime, a gun-rights group. "None of these laws have stopped crime."
Stolfer says local municipalities that have passed lost-or-stolen handgun laws have overstepped their authority.
"I do not believe local municipalities can institute laws that supersede state law," agrees state Rep. Harry Readshaw (D-Allegheny), one of the Metcalfe bill's co-sponsors. Metcalfe did not return phone calls for comment.
Readshaw, whose district includes towns like West Homestead, which have passed lost-or-stolen handgun ordinances, denies that HB 1523 is in any way an attack on local government. "I don't find it to be threatening to municipalities," he says.
Daniel Vice, however, disagrees.
Vice, a senior attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says Metcalfe's bill is very much a bold threat to municipalities that have passed lost-or-stolen handgun ordinances, or those planning to do so in the future.
He says the legislation closely resembles a bill that passed in Florida last year. The Sunshine State's measure, called the Penalties for Violating Firearms Pre-emption Law, forces local municipalities to repeal any regulations or ordinances that violate the state's firearms pre-emption law of 1987. Since the law went into effect in October, cities like Miami Beach have been removing gun-control laws from their books.
Vice, who is convinced such legislation stinks of NRA influence, worries that Metcalfe's bill could have the same effect in Pennsylvania.
"It puts cities in a terrible position," he says. "Either protect the community from gun violence, or deplete your resources to pay the NRA money."