Harrisburg – The Pennsylvania House and Senate this week each passed similar, but different, bills that would allow membership organizations such as the National Rifle Association to sue municipalities on behalf of aggrieved members over gun ordinances that are already preempted by state law.
One main point of divergence between the two bills: the House’s version would require a proposed plaintiff to give 60 days’ notice of their intent to sue over the ordinance, while the Senate version does not require such a notice provision.
Proponents of the bill have argued that the legislation is aimed at ensuring uniformity of state firearms laws, which is upended when local governments craft jurisdiction-unique laws that can cause uncertainty for gun owners.
“Succinctly, (this) is about uniformity across the state and ensuring that the laws enacted by the General Assembly are taken seriously and followed,” Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Cambria), prime sponsor of the Senate legislation, said when the bill was reported from the Senate Local Government Committee in March.
As creatures of the state, municipalities do not have the authority to enact legislation in contravention of extant state law; however, those opposing the legislation do so on the grounds that allowing membership organizations to sue on behalf of members puts municipalities at an unfair advantage.
As such, the PA SAFE caucus, a group of legislators standing in support of gun control legislation, came out in opposition to the concept proposed in both bills.
“This legislation would dangerously inflate Pennsylvania’s firearm preemption laws, giving extraordinary power to groups that could file frivolous lawsuits for their own gain. And our taxpayers would be the ones stuck with the bill, no matter the outcome,” said state Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery), who co-chairs the PA SAFE Caucus.
“We shouldn’t open our municipalities up to this kind of threat, nor should we take control from municipalities to provide for the safety of their residents.”
CeaseFirePA, an organization seeking to promote gun regulation, has also opposed to these concepts, labeling the proposal as the "sue our cities" law.
“The gun lobby is obsessed with creating a special right for itself to sue our cities (and) punish elected officials for working hard to keep people safe and divert tax dollars to frivolous litigation," said CeaseFirePA Executive Director Shira Goodman. "We will work with mayors, council members and individual Pennsylvanians to fight this effort.”
Much to the chagrin of the SAFE caucus like-minded legislators and supporters, attempts to remove the teeth from the proposals in each chamber were largely without success during the amendment process.
Attempts to do things like exempt Philadelphia, remove the membership organization provision and grandfather in already-existing municipal gun ordinances – among other proposals – were defeated with bipartisan opposition.
One Democratic amendment, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), made it into that chamber’s version of the proposal.
Though lacking a notice-before-suing provision, Boscola’s change would require the Attorney General to notify municipalities of the legislation within 30 days of its enactment.
Similar legislation was enacted in 2014, but was later found unconstitutional by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on grounds related to the process of the legislation’s enactment.
Last session, similar legislation was again considered, but failed to make it to the governor’s desk.
Should the legislation clear the General Assembly, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office has already made clear he would veto it.
However, Tuesday’s vote in the Senate did come with a veto-proof majority; the House vote on Wednesday also came close to reaching veto-proof levels.
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg bureau chief for The PLS Reporter, a non-partisan, online news site devoted to covering Pennsylvania government.