Pennsylvania Supreme Court appears unswayed by Philly's argument against firearms preemption

Pennsylvania Supreme Court appears unswayed by Philly's argument against firearms preemption
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The gun prohibitionists’ war on firearms preemption came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Wednesday, as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a challenge to the state statute that bars cities from establishing their own gun control regimes more restrictive than state law. While the justices didn’t reveal their opinions during the two hours of debate, attorneys representing the city of Philadelphia faced pointed questions from the bench, with a number of justices expressing their skepticism that the state legislature has overstepped its bounds by wanting a uniform body of gun laws across the state.


“To me, it seems the remedy is through voting,” Chief Justice Debra Todd said at one point.

Justice David N. Wecht questioned whether the city was improperly using the courts as a “backstop,” filing a lawsuit in an attempt to get the courts to help the city enact policies that the state legislature has not approved.

The city sued the state in 2020 in an attempt to overturn preemption, arguing that it violated residents’ rights by prohibiting municipal governments from passing local laws intended to save lives. City officials said that if allowed, they would enact and enforce new statutes intended to make it harder for people to obtain weapons for criminal use — requiring a permit to purchase guns in the city, for example, or limiting the number of guns a person can buy in the city within 30 days.

Jasmeet Ahuja, the lawyer who argued on behalf of the city Wednesday, said the consequences of preemption were “unconscionable and unconstitutional,” particularly as gun violence has surged to record heights in recent years. The lack of regulations of firearms, she said, was causing gunfire and denying many city residents — particularly Black and Hispanic people in poor neighborhoods — the right to life and liberty guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution.

But the justices repeatedly questioned the legal soundness of that argument, pushing Ahuja to explain how and why the legislature’s approval and defense of preemption was an issue that necessitated judicial review.

“Your whole argument is built around emotional rhetoric,” said Justice P. Kevin Brobson.

Wecht questioned if the courts might set an unwelcome precedent by intervening on this issue, asking Ahuja if it might cause people concerned about other social problems — such as hunger or addiction — to file similar suits.


If Democrats held a majority in both chambers of the Pennsylvania legislature, this lawsuit would probably already have been mooted by their repeal of the firearms preemption statute, as Colorado Democrats did in 2021 (not that it’s done any good for the crime rates in the state). And despite the claims by Philadelphia attorneys that more local gun control ordinances are vitally important in combatting violent crime, Philadelphia’s homicide rate is currently down 25% compared to the same time last year; very good news from a public safety perspective, but an inconvenient truth for Philly officials like Mayor Jim Kenney.

Mayor Jim Kenney, speaking at a news conference after the hearing, said it “doesn’t make any sense” that the city has repeatedly been stymied when seeking to enact local firearm laws, such as last fall, when a Common Pleas Court judge blocked Kenney’s executive order that aimed to ban guns from recreation centers and playgrounds.

“It’s hurtful and it’s stressful for everybody,” said a visibly frustrated Kenney. “Just give us a chance to mold our own future.”

He and city council members have that chance right now. They just can’t mold the city’s gun laws to make them more restrictive than state law, and they certainly don’t have the authority to craft ordinances that would violate the Second Amendment rights of city residents, which is almost certainly what would happen if preemption is overturned. The best thing that Kenney and other Philly officials could do would be to hound District Attorney Larry Krasner to prosecute more violent crimes, ensuring consequences for those committing the armed robberies, shootings, carjackings, and home invasions that are plaguing the City of Brotherly Love. Of course, that would mean alienating a good chunk of Democratic voters in Philadelphia, who re-elected Krasner by a wide margin in 2022… and Kenney is a savvy enough politician to choose to be the enemy of law-abiding gun owners rather than his own constituents.


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