Rules on reporting stolen guns could soon cost cities

Posted: February 08, 2012

State lawmakers are poised to advance a bill that could financially punish cities that require the timely reporting of lost or stolen firearms.

House Bill 1523's sponsors say it's an issue of governance: Municipalities cannot pass ordinances that supersede state laws. Forty-eight municipalities statewide - including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Allentown, Reading, Lancaster and Erie - have local laws requiring the timely reporting of lost or stolen guns or have passed resolutions asking the state to do so, even though state lawmakers in 2008 rejected such a proposal.

But gun foes say the bill's sponsors and supporters are puppets of the powerful National Rifle Association and other activists who would oppose gun control in any form. An amendment added to the bill Monday would enable the NRA or similar groups to challenge the ordinances, at the local municipalities' expense, regardless of whether an individual gun owner contests a specific citation.

"It is an intimidation tactic by the Legislature to coerce cities and towns that have taken action in favor of lost-or-stolen-handgun reporting to backtrack on their action," said Max Nacheman, director of CeaseFirePA.

And Monday's amendment "gives the NRA the ability to sue a city all on its own, even if no individual has had their rights violated," Nacheman added. "This could set an outrageous precedent of allowing an interest group to use the courts to pursue their own political agenda."

The bill, introduced in May by state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, would allow any gun owner challenging the local ordinances to collect attorneys' fees and damages from the city that passed the ordinance.

A full House vote on the bill, scheduled for Wednesday, was tabled and now is expected next week.

It all seems a moot point, at least in Philadelphia, where police say they have written exactly zero citations for an ordinance that has been on the books for almost four years.

And statistics suggest that plenty of guns are changing hands here without anyone notifying authorities. Although 68 guns were reported lost or stolen in Philadelphia in 2010, for example, authorities recovered 4,047 firearms that same year, according to statistics from the Philadelphia Police Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

So why bother championing a law that no one enforces?

Lt. Raymond Evers, a police spokesman, said the lack of citations doesn't reflect any conscious decision not to enforce the ordinance. Rather, "straw purchasers," people who buy guns legally and then sell or give them to criminals, already face strict penalties when caught so "a minor fine" piled onto the punishment they already face isn't needed. In Philly, people who don't report a lost or stolen firearm within 24 hours face fines of up to $2,000 and 90 days in jail.

Citations aren't the point, Evers added. Rather, the ordinance serves as a public-education tool and incentive "to the good guys, the 99 percent of gun owners who are very, very responsible" to report lost or stolen firearms immediately.

Locally passed laws requiring such reporting have been challenged in state courts at least six times, including in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and judges have allowed them to stand, Nacheman noted.

Still, members of the state House Judiciary Committee approved the bill Monday, even though the NRA was the sole organization on record as a supporter. Opponents listed included the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities and CeaseFirePA.

Anti-gun activists and law-enforcement officials say reporting requirements are key to reducing gun violence by helping to thwart straw purchasers. Police tracing crime guns often hit a dead end when the legal owners of the guns say their weapons have been long lost or stolen.

But critics say lost-and-stolen-gun reporting requirements penalize lawful gun owners and do little to affect illegal-gun trafficking. Further, gun restrictions that vary among municipalities make enforcement impossible, they add.

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