Philly council launches gun law fight

March 12, 2008 2:26:29 PM PDT
City council members asked a court Wednesday to let them adopt local gun-control measures because they say loose state firearms laws are wreaking havoc on Philadelphia streets. They accuse state lawmakers - who were given the sole power to regulate Pennsylvania gun sales in a 1974 law - of abdicating their responsibility to protect the public.

Philadelphia's 400 annual homicides have spawned the notorious nickname "Killadelphia."

"It's clear that they are not going to pass any laws," Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller said of state lawmakers. "We have been elected to protect the City of Philadelphia and we are prepared to do that. ... Every day, we wake up and people are dying."

Wednesday's arguments before Commonwealth Court concerned a motion by lawmakers to dismiss the city's suit, which seeks to overturn the 1974 law. The court did not indicate when it would rule.

City leaders are most frustrated by the apparent ease with which straw purchasers buy guns and pass them on to criminals. With no weekly or monthly limits on gun buys, the city has become a source of guns for New York and other cities with stricter laws, they argued.

Lawyers for the state Legislature, which has many supporters of gun ownership, countered that federal laws already prohibit straw purchases. They also said the city was taking aim at the wrong target.

"The dangers that they're pleading are created by criminals, not by the state," argued John P. Krill Jr. on behalf of the state Senate. "The problem here is drug violence."

In a case with some parallels, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled this month to review the District of Columbia's handgun ban. Challengers say the three-decade-old ban is unconstitutional.

Councilman Darrell L. Clarke, a plaintiff in the Philadelphia case along with Reed Miller, vowed to take the city's suit to the high court if necessary.

He sees public safety as a civil rights issue of the same urgency that access to education was in 1954, when the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education.

"We are in times unlike any before, in terms of the level of violence," Clarke said.

City Council last year passed ordinances that would ban assault weapons, control the sale of ammunition and require reports on lost or stolen guns.

But none has become law because of the controlling 1974 state statute.

The National Rifle Association, which intervened in the case, urged the judges to avoid judicial activism.

"They are asking the court to legislate from the bench," NRA lawyer G. Scott Shields said after the session. He called the strategy "an egregious offense against the citizenry."


Load Comments