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Second shot: Gun lobby taking aim at local firearm ordinances

"You don't give one single special-interest group a special set of rules for how to use Pennsylvania courts."

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>Gun-rights activists are amending an old version of the state's controversial Castle Doctrine law to allow individuals and pro-gun groups to sue municipalities that enact firearms regulations. 

The move is raising the hackles of anti-gun groups like CeaseFirePA, which opposes the new measures and argues the gun lobby used a "gut and replace" tactic to forward the bill quickly without public input. Gutting and replacing an earlier bill — one that has already cleared some legislative hurdles — allows the newer language to take a shortcut through the legislative process.

Senate Bill 273 now would allow gun-owners "adversely affected" by municipalities that have passed their own firearm regulations to seek damages. The bill also gives legal standing to organizations like the NRA or sportsmen's clubs to pursue lawsuits on behalf of members who live in such a municipality. 

Previously, the bill had been a Senate version of the "Castle Doctrine," which allows broader use of deadly force for self-defense. But a similar bill passed in the House and became law in June 2011. The Senate's legislation has idled in a House committee for more than a year until earlier this month. That was when Rep. Timothy Krieger deleted much of its previous language and inserted the new wording, which is similar to the language in a stalled bill introduced last year by Cranberry Republican Daryl Metcalfe.

>At press time, Krieger's bill was pending a House vote, which is expected this week.

>Critics argue the measure is an attack on lost-and-stolen handgun ordinances that 30 cities including Pittsburgh have adopted, and that it would allow gun-lobby groups more control in Harrisburg. 

"It's unprecedented," says Max Nacheman, director of CeaseFirePA. "You don't give one single special-interest group a special set of rules for how to use Pennsylvania courts."

>But gun-rights groups, like the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action and Firearm Owners Against Crime, support the new measures. They say it's important to have uniform firearms laws across the state, and to allow advocacy groups to challenge local ordinances on behalf of members, who may not be able to afford legal challenges of their own. State law, they argue, says no municipality may regulate firearms when carried for non-criminal purposes.

Nacheman contends that lost-and-stolen ordinances don't fall under the state law because "there is nothing lawful about a lost or stolen handgun." But Kim Stolfer of Firearm Owners Against Crime, who worked on the bill, says it "isn't meant to go after lost-and-stolen [ordinances]. This is meant to inform municipalities to abide by the law." And he argues that gun advocates have been working on it for some time.

>By Stolfer's count, there are at least 250 Pennsylvania communities that have their own rules — like bans on guns in parks or municipal buildings — that he says make it difficult for those traveling across municipal borders with permitted weapons. 

Krieger did not return a call for comment. But at a June 5 House Judiciary Committee meeting where he introduced the amendments, he argued the bill gives "teeth" to combat municipalities that pre-empt state law.

>"Those entities ... have violated the law," Krieger said. 

>But Rep. Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery) argued at the same meeting that the gun lobby was overextending its reach.

>"A lot of us believe in the rights of local communities to make common-sense decisions for their communities," he said. 

The issue doesn't entirely break down along partisan lines, however. While Dom Costa (D-Stanton Heights) says he has reservations about some of the bill's wording, he believes it's more important to have one overarching state law for firearms regulations. 

>"You can't have individual municipalities making laws regulating an individual's behavior," he says. "Take the gun out of it."

 "I've been shot," continues the former City of Pittsburgh police chief, who took a bullet during a 2002 standoff with an armed gunman. "I don't blame the gun."

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