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Court flattens Philadelphia restrictions on straw gun buyers

Philadelphia is vowing to appeal a ruling against its straw-purchasing law at a time when homicide rates in the city are at historic highs.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — On track for another record year of homicides, Philadelphia clocked disappointment with an appeals court decision against a local ordinance that subjects gun owners to a fine if they don't report the loss or theft of their weapons within 24 hours.

They city wielded the law, and inspired the lawsuit here, in 2018 when Lancaster police uncovered a Ruger that turned out to have been purchased in Philadelphia only four or five months earlier by Rashad Armstrong. Because Armstrong had never reported the gun as lost or stolen, the city said he owed $2,000 under a 2009 law that is meant to keep people from acting as straw purchasers of guns.

Even as he pleaded guilty to straw purchasing six guns, Armstrong challenged the law as federally preempted. The Commonwealth Court ruled for him Monday, relying on 2008 precedent from Clarke v. House of Representatives that slammed municipal encroachment into the sphere of firearm regulation.

“Each [ordinance] seeks to regulate firearms — an area that both Section 6120 and binding precedent have made clear is an area of statewide concern over which the General Assembly has assumed sole regulatory power," the court said in Clarke.

Reiterating this on Monday, Judge Patricia McCullough wrote for the Commonwealth Court that Philadelphia here "is attempting to enforce a law that it knew, or reasonably should have known, was unenforceable due to our 2008 decision in Clarke."

"Ultimately, the city’s decision to proceed with prosecution under Section 10-838a, a lost and stolen reporting law, and then incredibly claim that the law is actually a 'straw purchaser' law, which, in any event, has also been held to be preempted by this court evidences a form of bad faith and harassment on the part of the city," McCullough wrote.

Philadelphia reacted to the decision Tuesday by taking heart in the brief concurring opinion by Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, who said "the overwhelming blight of gun violence occurring in the city of Philadelphia ... and the policy issues argued by the city in the case before us, call for a recognition that local conditions may well justify more severe restrictions than are necessary statewide."

"It is neither just to impose unnecessarily harsh limits in communities where they are not required nor consistent with simple humanity to deny basic safety regulations to citizens who desperately need them," Leadbetter wrote. "When a child cannot leave his home to walk to the corner of his street without risking the prospect of being caught in a crossfire, we are denying him the most fundamental right, that of life and liberty, and so I would urge our Supreme Court to reconsider the breadth
of the Ortiz doctrine and allow for local restrictions narrowly tailored to local necessities."

Philadelphia registered an all-time high of 562 homicides in 2021, according to a police database. There have been 64 homicides meanwhile in 2022 as of Monday, a number on pace with the 67 that had occurred by this time last year.

Philadelphia city spokesman Kevin Lessard said in an email Tuesday that the city is disappointed with the decision and has faith in the legality of its lost-and-stolen guns law.  “We agree with Judge Leadbetter that this case is ripe for the Supreme Court’s review given the plain language of the law; we plan to appeal this ruling,” Lessard wrote.

Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney made similar remarks, saying he “completely agrees with the sentiment raised by Judge Leadbetter in her concurrence, where she notes that the gun violence experienced in the city of Philadelphia justifies stronger gun safety laws than may be necessary statewide and that we should not deny basic safety to our residents when they desperately need it."

Adam Kraut, vice president of programs at the Firearms Policy Coalition, said Philadelphia should rethink any plans to appeal.

“In spite of those prior cases, and having had an ordinance like the one at issue found invalid, Philadelphia has elected to waste taxpayer dollars while harassing and bullying Mr. Armstrong, all while likely knowing the cost to defend against such an action would be too much for any single individual. FPC has, and remains, committed to protecting individuals from unlawful statutory schemes,” Kraut said in a statement.

Lessard deferred to District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office as to whether the city is officially appealing the ruling. Krasner’s communications team did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday.

While Philadelphia officials have passed a number of local gun control measures in the last few decades, all have been struck down due the state's preemption law. Pittsburgh has also faced challenges enacting gun regulations, including a ban on military-style assault rifles following the Oct. 27 massacre at the city’s Tree of Life synagogue where 11 people were killed and another seven wounded.

Regulating guns has proved difficult in Pennsylvania even after Democratic Governor Tom Wolf's reelection to a second term, given the Republican control of the state Legislature. While Republican lawmakers have moved in recent years to relax firearm laws, for instance by invoking universal concealed carry, Wolf has vetoed such measures.

Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey also sat on the panel that made the decision Monday.

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