A local law requiring gun owners to report any firearm that is lost or stolen to police within 24 hours is being challenged in a Philadelphia case involving a man whose gun was found in a traffic stop back in 2018. Rashad Armstrong told police his firearm had gone missing about a month before it was discovered in a vehicle in Lancaster, Pennsylvania along with drugs. Prosecutors in Philadelphia used the local “lost and stolen” ordinance for the first time since it was put on the books in 2008, but Armstrong’s attorneys are arguing in court that the city doesn’t have the authority to enforce its local law.
On Thursday, Armstrong’s attorneys sought a permanent injunction, arguing that only the General Assembly can regulate guns, citing case law in support of their argument. Preemption prevents the city from enforcing the ordinance against Armstrong or any other Philadelphian.
“This is just another occasion of the city of Philadelphia violating an individual’s rights and it’s time for us as a country to stand up when the municipal movement starts to violate our rights, especially our constitutional rights,” said Armstrong’s attorney, Joshua Prince of the Firearms Industry Consulting Group.
Prince argued that regardless of the city’s well-meaning intentions to reduce gun violence, the city’s only recourse is to petition the lawmakers in Harrisburg to change state laws.
But Ben Geffen, one of the Public Interest Law Center’s attorneys teaming up with the city’s legal team to fight the injunction request, pushed back.
“State law does put some restrictions on how some local governments can regulate guns, but it doesn’t completely eliminate the power of cities to do anything about gun violence,” he said.
Geffen is representing nonprofits working to reduce gun violence in the city, as well as mothers Kimberly Burrell and Freda Hall.
Both women’s sons were shot to death. The guns used in the killings were obtained illegally from sources in Philadelphia. The women believe enforcing the law could prevent murders.
“Law-abiding, responsible gun owners who lose a gun or whose gun is stolen call the cops and report it,” said Geffen.
If a judge rules that the city does have the authority to enforce its local ordinance, Armstrong could face a $2,000 fine for failing to report his missing firearm. Supporters of the ordinance say it’s meant to crack down on straw purchases of firearms, where someone buys a gun for an individual who’s not allowed to legally own one.
There’s no evidence that these laws actually do anything to reduce straw purchases, but that’s not the thrust of the argument used by Armstrong’s attorneys. Instead, they’re pointing out the plain language in Pennsylvania’s firearm preemption law, which states that no “county, municipality or township may in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components when carried or transported for purposes not prohibited by the laws of this Commonwealth.”
As WHYY notes, previous District Attorneys in Philadelphia chose not to try to enforce the law, believing it violated the state’s firearm preemption statute, but that changed when Larry Krasner was elected to the office in 2018.
The hearing will continue next month in Philadelphia, and it could be several more weeks after that before we learn if the judge will allow the case to continue. Both sides say they ultimately believe the state Supreme Court will hear the case and decide whether or not Philly’s local gun control ordinance can be enforced.