PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia city leaders are again filing a court challenge to the state's prohibition on municipal gun regulations, this time joined by families of gun violence victims in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The city, along with the Ceasefire Pennsylvania Education Fund and 10 family members, filed the lawsuit in Commonwealth Court on Wednesday, asking a judge to find that the state's Firearms Preemption laws violate Pennsylvanians' right to life under the state Constitution. The lawsuit seeking to clear the path for stricter municipal firearms regulations comes as a surge in gun violence has sent Philadelphia's homicide rate to the highest level in more than a decade.
"In the absence of sensible gun laws at the state level, Philadelphia cannot be barred from enacting sensible gun laws at the local level," said City Solicitor Marcel Pratt at a Wednesday news conference announcing details of the lawsuit.
Pratt said there was clear evidence that the state's preemption laws endanger low-income communities and communities of color. The city's homicides surged to at least 366 as of Wednesday, a nearly 47% increase over last year at this time, and shootings were up nearly 57% over last year, city officials said.
The City Council moved more than a year ago to pass legislation that would ban guns from city parks and recreation centers, but the effort stalled at the General Assembly. The council passed a resolution to hire attorneys to sue the state earlier this year.
"The simple reality is that what we are asking for from the commonwealth is something that is extremely reasonable," City Council President Darrell Clarke said.
City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said there were more deaths from homicide than from diabetes in the city, noting that homicide and gun violence has become the leading cause of death for young Black men.
The lawsuit says the General Assembly has refused to pass — and, in some cases, refused to discuss — measures proposed at the municipal level to increase gun safety. The lawsuit names the state, the General Assembly, the Republican Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler and the Republican President Pro Tempore of the Senate Joe Scarnati as defendants.
Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus, said preemption is laid out in the state Constitution and has been upheld by the courts repeatedly.
"Preemption is a necessary component of municipalities being creatures of the state, who retain ultimate oversight of them and their actions," Gottesman wrote in an emailed statement. "Ultimately, this is another example of Democrat leaders making an end-run around the legislature by seeking action in the courts rather than the constitutionally-provided legislative process in changing our state's laws."
More than 40 states have some form of firearms preemption law that prohibits local gun control ordinances, according to the Everytown for Gun Safety advocacy group.
This isn't the first time a Pennsylvania city has challenged the state's firearms preemption laws.
Most recently, Pittsburgh enacted a series of stricter gun regulations, including a ban on high capacity magazines after the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue that left 11 people dead in October 2018. Gun rights groups sued, saying the laws were unconstitutional because only the state could regulate firearms. A Common Pleas judge agreed, but Pittsburgh appealed the decision to the Commonwealth Court in April, asking the laws be reinstated.
Philadelphia sued the state in 2007, also a year that saw a surge in city gun violence and gun-related homicides, saying the Legislature had created a "state of danger." The state's courts ultimately threw out the lawsuit, saying the city could not enact its own gun laws.