Taking on Gun Safety Preemption in Pennsylvania


Families of gun violence victims, the City of Philadelphia, and CeaseFirePA present first court argument in their case against Pennsylvania Firearm Preemption

An initiative of the Richard Berkman & Toni Seidl Health Care Justice Project.

June 9, 2021 — Gun violence disproportionally harms low-income Black and Latino communities, and it is an unrelenting public health emergency. Today, family members of gun violence victims from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the City of Philadelphia, and CeaseFirePA are in Commonwealth Court, seeking to continue their case against Pennsylvania state government and remove a major roadblock standing in the way of local action to reduce gun violence.

In a lawsuit filed on October 7, 2020, the petitioners challenged Pennsylvania’s Firearm Preemption Laws, which prohibit cities from enacting or enforcing most local gun safety ordinances, all while the General Assembly has itself refused to enact statewide gun safety laws. In March the respondents—legislative leaders and the Commonwealth—filed preliminary objections seeking to dismiss the case. Today in Commonwealth Court, an en banc panel will hear oral argument on these preliminary objections. Hogan Lovells senior associate Alexander Bowerman is arguing the case on behalf of the petitioners.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the General Assembly, its leaders and the Commonwealth have violated Pennsylvanians’ right to life under Article 1, Section 1of the PA Constitution, and to strike down the Firearm Preemption Laws so that Philadelphia and other municipalities may implement sensible and lawful measures to reduce gun violence.

“As countless families are reeling from one tragic shooting after another in Philadelphia and other jurisdictions across the Commonwealth, state lawmakers make it incredibly difficult for local governments like ours to effectively end the gun violence epidemic,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. “The Pennsylvania General Assembly handcuffs our ability to enact and enforce sensible gun safety laws that are proven to save lives, and this must end.”

Read the petitioners’ brief in opposition to the preliminary objections here. Read other case documents here. The petitioners are represented by the Public Interest Law Center, the City of Philadelphia, and pro bono counsel from Hogan Lovells.

“Philadelphia is experiencing an unprecedented level of gun violence and homicides, and we must act urgently to address it,” Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke said. “The General Assembly must either pass stronger, sensible gun laws, or get out of the way and allow cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and others to enact stronger laws to protect our residents and keep illegal firearms out of our communities. We hope the court sees the urgency of this case.”

In addition to seeking to dismiss the case, members of the General Assembly have introduced a new bill, House Bill 979, which would actually strengthen the existing firearm preemption laws and allow membership organizations, such as the NRA, to sue cities for even attempting to pass gun safety measures—with local taxpayers footing the bill for damages and legal fees. This bill passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Tuesday, June 8.

“Despite the pleas of their colleagues from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the General Assembly again showed their complete disregard for the lives of Black Pennsylvanians by voting to punish cities like Philadelphia for trying to respond to a spiraling gun violence crisis with commonsense protections,” said Adam Garber, Executive Director of CeaseFirePA. “The court now has the opportunity to empower communities to protect their residents’ constitutional right to live safely.”

“Firearm homicide is the leading cause of death for Black teenagers and young Black men in Philadelphia between the ages of 15 and 34. For the city as a whole, it’s the 11th leading cause of death,” said Mimi McKenzie, Legal Director at the Public Interest Law Center. “For the General Assembly to prevent Philadelphia from responding to this crisis with sensible gun laws that would save lives and then to double down and pass a law letting the NRA punish cities for passing gun safety laws —that is unconscionable.”

Petitioners in the case were supported by an amicus brief filed by a coalition of Philadelphia emergency medicine physicians and the Coalition of Trauma Centers for Firearm Injury Prevention. In their brief, the physicians share the unvarnished reality of the trauma that gun violence inflicts on Philadelphians every single day. One physician, Dr. Cynthia Mollen, is the Division Chief of Emergency Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and has cared for children who are victims of gun violence since 1995. In 2020, 196 children were shot in Philadelphia.

“The unimpeded flow of guns on the streets ⸺ and its physical and psychological toll –– impacts the health and well-being not only of the victim, but also of the entire community and city,” the brief reads. “Dr. Mollen would like politicians and the media to recognize that the far-reaching effects of gun violence in Philadelphia neighborhoods is not someone else’s problem. It is everyone’s problem. Philadelphia should be able to address it with appropriate ordinances.”

The City of Pittsburgh, the City of Harrisburg, a coalition of Pennsylvania County and Local Governments, and the Brady and Giffords Law Center all filed amicus brief in support of the petitioners, opposing this attempt to dismiss their case. Read all briefs here.

One example of local gun safety legislation that cities would seek to enact or enforce is a permit to purchase law, requiring residents to obtain a license before purchasing a gun. Studies show that this type of licensing laws can lead to significant reductions in gun homicides, gun suicides and diversions of guns used in crimes.

Philadelphia has passed a number of other evidence-based and sensible gun regulations—such as safe havens laws barring guns from playgrounds and recreation centers, and one-gun-a month—which it has been barred from enforcing by the Commonwealth’s Firearm Preemption Laws.

“We brought this legal action on behalf of individuals who have suffered devastating losses as gun violence continues to tear thought cities and towns across Pennsylvania,” said Hogan Lovells partner Stephen Loney. “Available research and examples from around the country show that enacting common sense measures to regulate firearms can save lives, and can be tailored so they do not raise Second Amendment concerns. Our lawsuit challenges the preemption laws that prevent municipalities here in the Commonwealth from protecting their residents.”