A Pennsylvania judge has blocked Philadelphia’s latest attempt to institute its own gun restrictions.
Judge Joshua H. Roberts of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas issued a permanent injunction against Mayor Jim Kenney’s (D.) executive order banning guns from Philadelphia parks and rec facilities on Monday. The court permanently enjoined the city against enforcing the mayor’s directive.
The ruling represents another setback for the city’s repeated attempts to enact stricter gun laws than the state has imposed. For years it has run headlong into the state’s preemption law, which says localities can not pass gun restrictions beyond what the state has adopted. It also represents another defeat for gun-control advocates who have attempted to pierce the veil of protection afforded by preemption laws across the country. While they have had recent success through repealing some or all preemption protection in states such as Colorado and Virginia, they have had little success challenging state statutes by having localities intentionally violate them since courts have often sided with gun-rights advocates challenging those local ordinances.
Gun Owners of America (GOA), a plaintiff in the case, said the ruling is another indicator Pennsylvania’s preemption law is not in question.
“The law in Pennsylvania couldn’t be clearer,” Andrew Austin, GOA’s attorney in the case, said in a statement. “No municipality–including Philadelphia–may regulate the lawful possession of firearms in any manner. [W]e’re gratified that the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas was willing to act so quickly to prohibit the mayor’s illegal action.”
Sarah Peterson, Deputy Communications Director for Mayor Kenney, said the city is “disappointed” by the ruling.
“We are reviewing today’s decision and are disappointed by the outcome, which as it stands prevents City employees from making the reasonable request that anyone with a firearm or deadly weapon leave a recreation facility,” Peterson told The Reload. “Since 2019, nearly 300 reported incidents of gun violence have occurred at City recreation facilities, in addition to dozens of other incidents of violence with a deadly weapon. The Mayor’s Executive Order was intended to prevent the senseless violence that is interfering with the safety of children, families, and staff in what must be safe places.”
The latest ruling is part of a broader fight over gun laws between the city and GOA. In January, Judge Roberts temporarily blocked the city’s ban on the home building of firearms while he considered GOA’s challenge to it under the state’s preemption statute. In September, he decided against issuing a permanent injunction against the ban because “the [state’s Uniform Firearms Act (UFA)] does not completely preempt the field of firearm regulation; and the local regulation does not seek to regulate an activity specified in the UFA, the Plaintiffs’ right to relief is not clear.”
Roberts’ ruling on the park gun ban was more definitive, with the judge issuing a preliminary injunction and permanently enjoining the mayor’s executive order.
Val Finnell, GOA’s Pennsylvania director, said the new ruling should serve as a warning for other localities. He said the gun-rights group is prepared to file suit against any other city or town that follows Philadelphia’s lead.
“All of the anti-gun municipalities need to take a lesson from this: Gun Owners of America is not going to tolerate your illegal bans for one minute,” he said in a statement. “We stopped Mayor Kenney in less than a week, and we will do the same to you.”
GOA lamented the lack of punishment for Philadelphia beyond being barred from enforcing its order. In 2014, Pennsylvania passed a law allowing those affected by illegal local gun ordinances to sue for damages. However, the state’s supreme court struck it down over procedural issues with how the legislature passed it. In 2021, the state supreme court ruled gun-rights groups and their members could sue localities over their gun ordinances without first having to be charged with a crime under those ordinances.
Gun-rights advocates want the state to reimpose the option of suing for damages against cities and towns that violated the state’s preemption law.
“The fact there are no consequences for these actions shows the need to add teeth to Pennsylvania’s preemption statute through legislative action that was vetoed last year by Governor Wolf,” Finnell said. “When municipalities like Philadelphia violate the law, they should pay attorney’s fees and damages.”
The outcome of this year’s state elections could dramatically affect state preemption laws in Pennsylvania, with Democrats generally favoring repealing them and Republicans favoring strengthening them.
UPDATE 5:54 PM EASTERN 10-3-2022: This piece has been updated to include comment from Mayor Kenney’s office.