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Rick Bunker considers himself a responsible gun owner. The army veteran and avid hunter keeps his half dozen rifles and pistols securely in a safe at his home in the quiet community of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.
He also supported a local ordinance that required residents to inform law enforcement within 72 hours of discovering a gun was lost or stolen.
“You didn't have to register guns ahead of time,” Bunker said. “It didn't restrict my ability to happily own guns and use them in any way I wanted to. It just said if they're lost or stolen, report it to the police.”
Bunker said he never heard a single complaint about the ordinance from fellow gun owners.
“The lost and stolen ordinance only inconveniences people who are trying to funnel guns to those who are not allowed to buy them,” he said.
Despite all of that, Bunker voted last November, as vice president of the Jenkintown Borough Council, to rescind the 2010 measure. The vote took place under threat of a lawsuit from the National Rifle Association.
The council vote came two weeks after the Pennsylvania state legislature – under intense lobbying by the NRA – passed Act 192, which allowed organizations and residents to sue cities and towns over any local gun restrictions.
The city wouldn't just have to pay its own legal fees; if it lost, the law would require it to pay the legal fees of the NRA too. With a population of 4,400 and an annual budget of $6 million, Jenkintown couldn’t take the chance of losing in court.
We're powerful. And we don't mind putting that power to work for our constituents. That's what they expect us to do. That's what they ask us to do. And by God, we're going to do it.
NRA's attorney in Pennsylvania
“They gave us a choice between financial solvency and safety,” said Jenkintown Mayor Ed Foley. “We have a very small budget in this town and we really can't afford to defend a lawsuit against an organization with deep pockets like the NRA. We really had no choice but to rescind this ordinance and take it off the books.”
Jenkintown isn’t alone. Under threat of litigation, at least 20 municipalities have moved to repeal local firearms ordinances instead of defending them in court.
The right to make laws
Since the 1970s, Pennsylvania has had a law assigning all power to regulate guns to the state legislature. It's known as a state pre-emption law, because it "pre-empts" decisions made at the local level. Industry groups are increasingly lobbying for this kind of legislation in order to dismantle local laws they dislike, from minimum wage hikes to bans on hydraulic fracturing.
Pennsylvania's state gun laws preempted any local gun-control ordinance. But many cities and towns across Pennsylvania passed them anyway. It was only with the passage of Act 192 in November 2014, that the NRA could take direct action to challenge those local ordinances. That act gave the NRA legal standing to sue cities for passing any gun restriction – without needing to prove it was hurt by it.
“The municipalities have no right, have no authority, have no power to pass those sorts of laws," said Jonathan Goldstein, the NRA’s attorney in Pennsylvania. "If they think it's a good idea, they should take those ideas to the General Assembly, which they have done, and see if they can have those ideas adopted."
Goldstein acknowledged that reporting a lost or stolen gun might be a good idea, but said that wasn't the point. The issues in this case, he said, gets to the heart of American democracy: who has the right to make laws.
And states have the fundamental right to overrule local ordinances. Almost a century ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the power of cities "rests in the absolute discretion of the state."
“In Pennsylvania, our elected legislature has decided that a uniform scheme of gun regulation across the state is desirable," said Goldstein. "Period, full stop. And these municipalities cannot substitute their own judgment for that of our duly elected general assembly and governor.”
The local ordinances had the potential to turn law-abiding gun owners into criminals, Goldstein said, and the NRA was determined to advocate for the right to bear arms and against what it saw as government overreach.
“We have 200,000 people,” he said of NRA membership in Pennsylvania. “We're powerful. And we don't mind putting that power to work for our constituents. That's what they expect us to do. That's what they ask us to do. And by God, we're going to do it.”
‘This is dead kids’
In January, the NRA filed suit against three Pennsylvania cities – Lancaster, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – that refused to rescind locally approved gun laws.
Those three cities have gone to court to vacate the Act 192 on procedural grounds, arguing that the measure had been improperly attached to a bill on scrap metals.
Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray, who is named personally in the NRA’s lawsuit, believes the NRA is trying to bully Pennsylvania cities and towns into giving up regulations that helped police fight illegal gun sales.
“Last year we seized 35 to 40 stolen guns,” he said. “How did we know they were stolen? Somebody reported them.”
While his city of 60,000 didn’t have much gun violence, Gray said he felt compelled to act in 2009 after a local 9-year-old girl was killed when gang crossfire broke out in a nearby town.
“This isn't some theoretical issue. This isn't some arcane argument about the Constitution. This is dead kids,” he said. “Now the NRA says enforce the laws that you have. Well, what good does it do if your child's been shot by some people?”
Lancaster established a legal defense fund that's raised $20,000 in donations, nearly enough to meet its insurance deductible under the NRA lawsuit, according to Gray, who's also the state chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
“I think the NRA has just overstepped so far here that it's almost a level of ridicule,” Gray said. “…Most gun owners support what we’re doing. They don’t understand the NRA’s opposition to reporting lost or stolen guns. And the response is, ‘Why wouldn’t I report it?”