A table of 3D-printed firearms
A table of 3D-printed firearms / Stephen Gutowski

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Upholds Philadelphia ‘Ghost Gun’ Ban

The City of Brotherly Love can continue to enforce its local ban on unfinished gun parts and homemade guns, a divided state appeals court ruled Friday.

In a 4-3 decision, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania determined that a 2021 Philadelphia ordinance outlawing the possession, use, transfer, or manufacture of homemade guns and gun parts by persons not licensed to sell firearms is permissible under state law. The court said that even though Pennsylvania law preempts local gun restrictions, unfinished gun parts are not actually firearms, and Philadelphia can regulate them.

“In sum, there can be no doubt that, as understood through extant case, [Pennsylvania’s preemption] statute fully occupies the field of firearms regulation,” Judge Ellen Ceisler (D.) wrote for the majority in Gun Owners of America v. Philadelphia. “Even so, it does not follow that this Ordinance is preempted. By its very terms, the Ordinance does not regulate firearms per se.”

The ruling marks a rare legal win for a city that has routinely attempted to excuse itself from Pennsylvania’s legal monopoly on gun regulations going back decades. Though it has consistently lost in court on that front, the preemption loophole endorsed by Friday’s ruling could provide a new strategy for the city’s gun-control agenda moving forward.

A city spokesperson told The Reload they were “grateful” for the court’s decision.

“The City maintains that the ordinance is an important tool in combating the proliferation of illegal guns in Philadelphia, which contributes to ongoing gun violence impacting our communities,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to defend the City’s right to enforce the ordinance.”

Pennsylvania’s most recent preemption statute stems from the 1995 Uniform Firearms Act. Section 6120 of that act stipulates that “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.”

Judge Ceisler reasoned that rather than regulating “firearms” as defined by Pennsylvania law, Philadelphia’s ordinance instead “merely prohibits the conversion of unfinished frames or receivers into firearms, as well as the use of certain manufacturing processes to create firearms from scratch, and bars the purchase, sale, or transfer of certain kinds of parts and machinery for purposes of those activities.”

This distinction, she said, enables the ordinance to “escape the preemptive reach of the UFA.”

Gun Owners of America (GOA), who first challenged the city’s so-called ghost gun ban in 2021, criticized Judge Ceisler’s reasoning and called upon the Pennsylvania General Assembly to act to avoid similar outcomes in the future.

“It underscores the necessity for strengthening Pennsylvania’s firearms preemption law in the state legislature,” Val Finnell, GOA’s Pennsylvania State Director, told The Reload. “HB 63 and SB 779 should be passed immediately to prevent Philadelphia and other municipalities from enacting their own gun control laws.”

Even under the state’s current preemption law, multiple judges on the Commonwealth Court registered their disagreement with the majority’s ruling. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Patricia A. McCullough (R.) accused the majority of being swayed by “artful drafting, fancy definitional footwork, or sleight of legislative hand” in determining that state law doesn’t preempt the ordinance.

“We simply cannot, as the Majority has done, first conclude that the General Assembly occupies the entire field of firearms regulation and then ignore an Ordinance firmly planted in that field based on a hyper-technical analysis of its wording and definitions,” she wrote. “The Ordinance plainly targets firearm possession and regulates firearm component parts that, practically speaking, could ‘readily be converted’ into firearms.”

Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon (R.) authored a separate dissent arguing that the court should be bound by its precedent of rejecting “attempts at local regulation in analogous circumstances.”

GOA said it has not yet decided whether it will appeal the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Even if it ultimately does not, the state’s high court could soon act to clarify how much leeway Pennsylvania’s largest city has to adopt its own gun-control regime for the first time since 1996.

Philadelphia sued the state over the right to pass local firearms legislation in 2020, arguing that Pennsylvania’s preemption statute violates its residents’ rights to life and liberty as provided by the state constitution. The argument, which is the first of its kind nationwide in challenging state preemption laws, has been unsuccessful in the lower courts thus far. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case last September, reopening the possibility that the city will succeed in its decades-long quest to enact strict local gun laws. The elected, seven-member court is currently comprised of five Democrats and two Republicans.

Should Philadelphia succeed, it would likely open the floodgates for more ordinances like the city’s homemade gun ban. It could also serve as a blueprint for gun-control activists in the remaining 40 or so states that still have firearm preemption statutes on the books. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court could issue a decision in that case at any moment.

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019


Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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