The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard arguments in the most significant challenge in almost 30 years to the law barring local governments from passing stricter gun laws than those enacted by the state on Wednesday.
The City of Philadelphia, Ceasefire PA, and the co-victims filed Crawford v. Commonwealth in October 2020, arguing that the state’s 1974 preemption statute violates Philadelphians’ fundamental right to life and liberty as provided by the state constitution.
Eliminating preemption, or narrowing its application, would allow Philadelphia and other cities across the Keystone State to pass permit-to-purchase laws, extreme risk protection orders, monthly handgun purchasing limits, or other changes advocates say could help prevent homicides, mass shootings, and suicides.
Representing the plaintiffs, Jasmeet Ahuja argued that Article 1, Section 1, of the state Constitution provides a “right to self-defense by legislation” which should empower local municipalities to determine if they should have stricter gun laws.
In May 2022, the Commonwealth Court dismissed the case in a 3-2 decision. The decision was made based on precedent, according to a plurality opinion, because previous cases against the state’s preemption laws did not find them to be unconstitutional. The plaintiffs appealed.
The plaintiffs are attacking the state’s preemption law on three fronts, asserting:
- That the General Assembly’s unwillingness to let local governments pass stricter gun control laws results in a “state-created danger” that has made citizens more vulnerable to gun violence;
- That the preemption law violates citizens’ rights spelled out in Article 1, Section 1 of the state Constitution, including the rights of life, liberty and “pursuing their own happiness.”
- And that the preemption law prevents the municipalities from responding to the gun violence epidemic as a public health threat.
In rejecting those arguments, the Commonwealth Court had pointed to the precedent from the 1996 decision in Ortiz v. Commonwealth in which the Supreme Court had ruled that because gun laws are a statewide concern, it made sense to have a statewide gun law.
On Wednesday, justices repeatedly questioned how the courts could weigh in on the matter without making policy decisions that ought to be made by the General Assembly.
They also noted that unlike prior major decisions, like one determining that the state is unconstitutionally underfunding poor school districts, there is nothing in the state Constitution that explicitly spells out the rights being asserted by plaintiffs in this case.
Ahuja said that the ordinances that Philadelphia would enact if empowered to do so would not impact gun rights of lawful gun owners.
“The proposed legislation would target unlawful gun ownership,” she said. “We are not trying to impinge on lawful gun ownership.
The ordinances that Philadelphia would enact include a measure that would require gun owners to obtain a city permit to obtain a firearm; a measure barring gun purchasers from buying more than one gun a month, and a red flag ordinance, intended to make it easier to take away gun rights from those deemed a danger to themselves or others.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney tweeted, “Through preemption, the State has prevented the City from enacting sensible policies that would reduce the disproportionate impact of gun violence. There is no justification for this restriction that could possibly outweigh the terrible impact of gun violence in Philadelphia.”
CeaseFirePA, a gun violence prevention organization, tweeted, “Today, we made our case to the PA Supreme Court to challenge firearm preemption which has prevented cities like Philly from passing life-saving gun safety laws. While we wait for the court verdict, we will continue to fight for survivors and for laws to protect PA communities.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will now decide if the case will go to trial.