Penn. mayors battle NRA over gun laws

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 2:38 PM

William Selway

Pennsylvania’s mayors are waging a running gun battle with the National Rifle Association.

First, mayors backed a statewide law aimed at cracking down on trafficking by forcing residents to report lost and stolen firearms. The NRA opposed it, and it died in the legislature.

Then, more than two dozen localities, led by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, passed similar requirements on their own. An NRA-led lawsuit failed after judges said plaintiffs didn’t have standing to go to court. Now the gun-rights organization is championing a bill that would let it sue cities over the reporting rules - even if no one is charged for breaking them.

"We continue to fight the fight realizing we don’t have enough political clout to win the battle," said Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, D, whose city passed the rules. "All we’re trying to do is protect our citizens."

What’s unfolding in Pennsylvania, where 384 people were slain last year in its four biggest cities, shows how aggressive the NRA can be in fighting what it sees as challenges to gun rights. With Congress loath to act, the battles have shifted to state capitals, where the NRA has successfully backed more expansive self-defense laws, helped defeat measures aimed at identifying guns used in crimes and supported challenges to cities that pass firearm rules.

"Everybody focuses on the national level, but the reality is that a lot of gun laws are state level," said Harry Wilson, a political scientist at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., who has studied gun control and politics. "On the whole, they’ve been doing well."

With 4 million members and a budget of more than $200 million, the Fairfax, Va.-based NRA has successfully wielded its clout in Washington.

Since the 1994 assault-weapon ban, which has expired, Congress has enacted no major gun regulations other than a law aimed at improving state reporting for federal background checks. Mass shootings in a Colorado movie theater and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin that left 18 dead and dozens injured during the past two months haven’t spurred action.

In states, efforts to roll back so-called Stand Your Ground laws, which let people who feel endangered in a public place use deadly force, have struggled. The laws drew scrutiny after the February shooting in Sanford, Fla., of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by a neighborhood watchman.

The NRA’s Pennsylvania push follows the enactment of a law in Florida last year that threatens local leaders with removal from office for adopting their own gun laws.

This year, in Pennsylvania and at least six other states, bills were introduced aimed at local governments seeking to pass their own gun regulations, such as bans on carrying weapons through public parks and into city-hall meetings. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, D, signed one such law in April.

It’s an efficient strategy, said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who is now the president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association in Rindge, N.H.

"I’d always rather fight any battle in a state capital than in 15 or 50 county areas," he said.

Pennsylvania law bars local governments from regulating the lawful ownership, possession or transportation of firearms. District attorneys say the towns’ ordinances, which threaten owners who don’t report missing guns, conflict with state law.

With no one prosecuted, NRA-led lawsuits failed when the court said no one had a legal right to fight the laws because no one had been harmed. A bill in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives would give the NRA and other gun groups the right to challenge the local measures anyway.

"These people are thumbing their nose at the law, period," said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R, who sponsored the bill. "We have some local elected officials that think they can act like local tyrants and pass their own gun control laws."

Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, didn’t respond to e- mail and phone messages seeking comment.

The fight over the reporting requirement began in 2007, when Philadelphia pressed the Legislature to pass it after a year in which the city averaged more than a murder a day. The bill, supported by other cities, was aimed at cracking down on those who buy guns legally, sell them on the black market, and evade responsibility by claiming the gun was lost or stolen.

When the measure failed, 30 municipalities passed it on their own, according to CeaseFirePA, a group that pushed for the ordinances. Such laws are an initiative of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group whose co-chairman is New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.

When the NRA’s legal challenge unraveled, it backed the law that would give it and other groups the right to sue. The NRA on its website urged members to press their legislators.

"This is one of the NRA’s top issues in Pennsylvania," said Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Pa., an NRA member who supports the bill.

The bid to ease the NRA’s path into the courts reflects the gun lobby’s power over politicians, said Nutter, the Philadelphia mayor.

"They have an undue influence virtually everywhere," he said. "Whether it is Pennsylvania or other states or certainly with the federal government, there appears to be no ability on their part to seek common ground, to seek compromise, even a recognition that there is a violence problem in the United States of America."

State Rep. Joseph Brennan, D, whose district includes sections of Allentown, said he received more than 200 letters, e-mails and phone calls urging approval. Brennan said he sided with the supporters and against Pawlowski, the mayor.

"Gun control is better addressed at the state level," he said.

Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray agrees - if only the state would act.

His town’s reporting ordinance is "extremely difficult to enforce. It’s more of a statement to the General Assembly that we need it statewide."

Gray said the NRA-backed legislation would expose his town to legal battles.

"We’ll spend money fighting frivolous litigation instead of hiring police officers," he said.

In March, Gray joined Nutter and Pawlowski in Harrisburg to lobby in the Senate against the NRA legislation. They visited Majority Whip Pat Browne, R, and the staffs of Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R, and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R.

Pawlowski said he left the meetings convinced the bill was likely to stall. In June, the House Judiciary Committee approved the measure, advancing it to the full house.

"We were kind of shocked," Pawlowski said. "The legislation is absolutely insane."

In June, a vote was delayed when opponents prepared dozens of amendments, threatening to use up time with debates on new gun-control measures. The bill is on the calendar when lawmakers return in late September.

"It’s not going away," Chester Mayor John Linder said. "The NRA is not going to relent."

— With assistance from Romy Varghese in Philadelphia, Michael C. Bender in Tallahassee and Heidi Przybyla in Washington.

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