Two days after losing his reelection bid, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed a bill with an amendment that allows the National Rifle Association (NRA) to sue cities and towns that pass ordinances regulating firearms by claiming they infringe upon individual rights. Until the gun lobby’s dream amendment got tacked on in the final hours of the legislative session, Act 192 had nothing to do with guns; it criminalizes the theft of secondary metal, like copper wire, and it had broad support.
With Democrat Tom Wolf replacing the Republican Corbett, the NRA and its allies in the legislature had to act quickly. In his haste, Corbett even signed the wrong version of the bill, and had to be called back for a second signing. Outraged at how gun enthusiasts rammed through the amendment, Democratic State Senator Daylin Leach recruited several other elected officials plus the cities of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Lancaster to challenge the law’s constitutionality.
Pennsylvania law says amendments must be germane, and empowering the NRA to sue municipalities for enacting gun laws is far afield from Act 192’s intent. Leach, a lawyer, wrote the brief himself, and the lawsuit is before the Commonwealth Court. “The Pennsylvania legislature is essentially a wholly owned subsidiary of the NRA,” he says, explaining that the NRA saw an opening in the closing days of Corbett’s term to “sneak it in” while it had the votes and a proven ally in the governor’s office.
The NRA quickly used its newfound legal power, suing a number of municipalities and threatening others to get them to back down. The amendment as written says an organization does not need what’s known as “standing”—in other words, the NRA doesn’t have to prove someone has been harmed by a gun safety law. It can just outright sue, and if it wins, the city or town has to pay the group’s legal expenses. But there’s no risk to the NRA; if it loses, it doesn’t pay the winning side’s legal expenses.
Ed Foley, the mayor of Jenkintown, a borough in the Philadelphia suburbs, told the Daily Beast that the NRA forced him “to choose between public safety and financial solvency.” Foley describes Jenkintown on his Twitter account as “0.6 square miles of the best place to live, dine, shop, and raise a family.” With a population of 4,500 and a budget of $6.5 million, “We can’t afford to defend a law suit even if we win it, and if we lose, we have to pay their legal fees. That’s a form of blackmail,” he says, “or maybe extortion is a better word.”
Under the threat of a lawsuit brought by the NRA, an ordinance in place since 2010 requiring Jenkintown residents to report lost or stolen firearms at the police station was rescinded in a public meeting. “It was a hold-your-nose vote,” says Foley. “It’s such an innocuous law, and it doesn’t do anything to restrict anybody’s right to have a gun. I don’t know why the NRA isn’t a bigger supporter of the police. The police want the law.”
The NRA never plays defense, it always goes on offense, says Jim Kessler, a co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. “Even after Sandy Hook, they were trying to expand their reach and loosen gun laws,” he says. The nation may have recoiled in horror at the massacre of 20 first graders, but the NRA’s response is always more access to guns, not more restrictions. A movement to expand gun rights is growing, fueled by a libertarian streak on the right and the left, and it is playing out on the state level. In Florida, a campus shooting in November prompted a House panel to approve guns on college campuses, a first step to overturning a state ban on concealed weapons on university grounds.
Gun safety advocates favor ballot measures like the one Washington state passed in 2014 requiring background checks while gun rights groups work their will through state legislatures. State Senator Leach tells the story of the time when he had the votes to overturn the “Florida loophole” in Pennsylvania law. Then the NRA lobbied each member one by one “and they came back ashen-faced.” When Leach asked, “’Are you still with me?’ most didn’t respond; one said, ‘I’ve got to fuck you, buddy.’” The Florida loophole allows people who can’t get a gun under Pennsylvania’s very low standards to go online, get one from Florida, and Pennsylvania will respect that. “We would never do that on marriage,” says Leach. “ Let another state decide what to do in our state.” As for his colleague’s X-rated comment, he says, “I appreciated his candor, and that’s the Democratic caucus. I’m sure the Republican caucus is far worse.”
Not everyone is afraid of the NRA. Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto declared in a statement that the city would not be deterred from enforcing its requirement that lost and stolen firearms must be reported: “Too many people are being killed in the streets of Pittsburgh and other cities with stolen guns. It’s a common-sense requirement, which is why police across the state support the regulation, as do many members of the NRA.”
Mayor Richard Gray of Lancaster, a city of some 60,000 known for its distinctive Amish population, is also determined to protect its requirement that lost or stolen firearms are reported to the police within 72 hours. “The NRA is trying to bully smaller communities,” Gray told the Beast. “I learned in junior high school the one way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him, so we’re not backing down. And if they lose, over a hundred communities will pass the same law. I guarantee it.”
A Common Sense Lancaster Legal Defense Fund was launched in mid-January, and has collected almost $10,000 in small contributions. Gray says the NRA is “a paper tiger,” and if challenged can be defeated. He said in a statement announcing the Fund that statewide legislation to make reporting of lost or stolen guns mandatory was introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature in 2007, but it never got out of committee. He noted that the new law granting unprecedented legal power to the NRA was needed, according to its prime sponsor, “to stop little tyrants at the local level from enacting their own gun-control measures.” Now it’s up to the voters and the courts to judge where the tyranny lies, whose rights are being trampled, and whether Act 192 will be allowed to endure as the will of the people, or the product of a process bullied by the NRA.
A previous version of this piece mistakenly attributed state Sen. Leach's comments to another member.