PA lawmakers grant NRA, other groups standing to sue over local gun laws


By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

Municipal leaders across Pennsylvania are fretting over legislation that would give the National Rifle Association the power to sue over local gun regulations that reach beyond state law, but the NRA believes it’s their own fault should they end up on the losing side of an expensive court battle.

“Maybe they shouldn’t be passing ordinances that they know full well are out of compliance with state law,” NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said. “That’s the underlying issue here: These local governments are defying state law, and there’s no mechanism to hold them accountable.”

There could be soon if Gov. Tom Corbett signs House Bill 80, which has already passed in both the state Senate and House.

LITIGATION COMING?: New legislation passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly would give the NRA standing to sue local governments over their gun laws,

The governor supports the legislation that gives standing to membership groups, such as the NRA, to sue over local gun laws. It would also allow successful plaintiffs to collect damages and expenses.

That has fueled fears lawmakers have hand-delivered a pre-election gift to powerful special interest groups that could cash in at taxpayer expense if they’re successful in court.

“This is a dangerous provision that threatens our municipalities’ financial stability,” state Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery, said. “And just as alarming, it will hamper our local towns and cities from taking action to protect their own citizens where the state has failed to do that.”

Any lawsuits, though, would be the fault of overreaching local government officials, the NRA said.

That’s because the state has a preemption law that says no county, municipality or township may in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components when carried or transported for purposes not prohibited by the laws of this Commonwealth.”

That hasn’t stopped Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto from logging their opposition to the legislation. They argued in a joint statement that lawmakers shouldn’t open the door to lawsuits against cities trying to curb gun violence with their own laws.

“While any law can be tested in court, no one, much less resource-strapped municipalities and their taxpayers, should be singled out to bear markedly increased risk and cost for trying to protect human life,” the two mayors said.

Rick Schuettler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, said the legislation could have a “very detrimental” effect on local governments.

Municipalities wouldn’t necessarily have insurance to cover their losses in the case of a costly court loss, Schuettler said. Even if a municipality is covered, successful lawsuits would still affect a loss history, premiums and insurability moving forward, he said.

“We don’t need to create more litigation in this society, quite frankly,” he said.

The NRA previously tried to challenge a Pittsburgh ordinance that required gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms, but state courts found the group didn’t have standing to sue. House Bill 80 could give the organization another crack at it — and other local gun laws that have up popped up in cities across the state.

“This legislation will help ensure that Pennsylvania’s law-abiding gun owners don’t face a confusing patchwork of firearms laws throughout the state,” Mortensen said. “That’s ultimately what we’re trying to achieve.”

Mortensen didn’t know whether the NRA planned to challenge any specific ordinance, but said municipalities that repeal related regulations wouldn’t face litigation.

While the NRA was happy to see the bill head to Corbett’s desk, several Democratic lawmakers from urban areas still made impassioned pleas against the legislation, with some members directly naming the NRA as the main beneficiary.

Those types of comments didn’t sit well with state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny.

“Oh really? Is that right? That’s’ your objection. Sounds really peculiar to me,” Saccone said. “Because when it’s the ACLU or the Sierra Club or the Freedom From Religion Foundation all the way from Wisconsin coming in here and intimidating and suing municipalities, I hear an eerie silence from the left in those cases.”

Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.