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Pennsylvania court weighs legality of law that lets NRA sue to overturn gun control rules

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, April 15, 2015, 12:57 p.m.

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judges heard arguments Wednesday about whether a law that makes it easier for the National Rifle Association, gun owners and other groups to sue municipalities over their gun ordinances is constitutional.

A law intended to deter scrap metal theft was amended in the waning days of the legislative session, making it possible for the NRA to sue Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Lancaster over the cities' gun ordinances.

Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, sued the state, claiming the law violates a constitutional provision requiring bills to be about a single subject. He wants the law to be thrown out. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Lancaster joined Leach's lawsuit.

“It did seem to me that the judges were struggling in the way we've all been struggling to see what connection on planet Earth there is between criminal penalties for the theft of secondary metals and civil remedies against municipalities for gun ordinances,” Leach said outside the courtroom in the City-County Building, Downtown.

Drew Crompton, an attorney at the hearing representing Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, said he thought it went well.

“We think there's a reasonable relationship between the two provisions,” Crompton said after the hearing.

During the hearing, Robert Masterson, the attorney arguing against the law, said that for the first 22 months of the bill's existence, it had nothing to do with guns. Only in the final week did lawmakers add language to give gun owners, the NRA and other groups standing to sue even if they couldn't show local firearm regulations harmed them.

“It's two bills that have nothing to do with each other that were jammed together at the last minute,” Masterson said.

State law forbids local gun laws. The NRA sued Pittsburgh over its law requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms. That case is on hold, pending the outcome of the Commonwealth Court case, said Tim McNulty, spokesman for the city. Smaller municipalities repealed similar lost or stolen gun ordinances to avoid lawsuits.

The NRA did not return a call seeking comment.

Attorney Nicholas M. Orloff, arguing in support of the law, said the scrap metal theft and gun provisions fall under the state's criminal code. If someone is convicted of scrap metal theft, it would affect his or her ability to possess a gun, Orloff said, arguing the connection links the two.

“The single subject is amending the crimes code,” Orloff said.

The judges did not appear quick to agree.

“What we're struggling with is trying to come up with an explanation of how you can bring those two together,” Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt said.

The panel did not indicate when it would rule.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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