Bill to award legal fees to challengers of illegal local gun ordinances passes House Judiciary Committee

By Jon Campisi | Mar 20, 2014

A measure that would benefit those who find themselves in trouble with the

law for violating local gun ordinances, which the state says shouldn’t be there in the first place, has passed a legislative panel.

The Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee, in a 20-5 vote on Tuesday, advanced House Bill 2011, a National Rifle Association-backed proposal that would give it, similar organizations and private citizens legal recourse to recoup court fees spent fighting illegal local firearms ordinances.

If the law passes the General Assembly and is signed by Gov. Tom Corbett, successful lawsuits will yield plaintiffs attorneys’ fees and costs, and even lost income due to court appearances.

The bill’s sponsor, Mark Keller, a Republican representing parts of Franklin and Perry Counties, pointed to Section 6120 of the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act, which already specifically prohibits local regulation of the ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of guns, ammunition and ammunition components.

“This section implements the statewide constitutional right recognized by Article I, Section 21 of the Pennsylvania Constitution,” Keller wrote in his memo seeking cosponsors, which went out this past November. “Despite this, in recent years, local governments have been passing ordinances regulating firearms in defiance of Pennsylvania law.”

Aside from the constitutional argument, Keller pointed to the chaotic nature of having local gun ordinances as a reason behind the bill.

“Where so many different ordinances are allowed to exist, citizens with no criminal intent are in danger of breaking restrictions where they don’t know they exist,” the legislator wrote in his memorandum. “Furthermore, it is unreasonable to require residents of Pennsylvania and citizens passing through from other states to memorize every firearm ordinance as they pass through each local jurisdiction.”

The result, Keller stated, is that individuals can be forced to incur “significant expenses” to hire lawyers to challenge the “illegal and unconstitutional” local laws.

If the proposal becomes law, H.B. 2011 would award lawyers’ fees, litigation costs and income losses to those who challenge the ordinances in court.

In a recent interview, Joshua Prince, a leading firearms attorney from Berks County, said he fully backed the measure.

Most attorneys, he said, won’t take on cases fighting local gun ordinances because those challenging the measures often can’t afford to pay the lawyers.

“Absent it [attorneys’ fees] being built in [to the statute] there is no way, generally speaking, for which an attorney could obtain attorney’s fees from the municipality,” Prince said in a phone interview. “I believe that it [the bill] is a very good step.”

Prince was on the successful end of a recent lawsuit in Erie that challenged that city’s ban on firearms in parks.

In January, the Pennsylvania Record reported that Commonwealth Court overturned a ruling by an Erie County Common Pleas Court judge that determined gun rights activist Justin Dillon had not met the grounds for a preliminary injunction seeking to nullify a city ordinance that banned legal gun owners from carrying their weapons in local parks.

Prince was the attorney who represented Dillon in the case.

When it came up for an appeal, the en banc Commonwealth Court panel ruled that state law and court precedence were clear: cities and towns cannot impose their own rules with regard to guns.

Without the NRA providing funding for that case to go through the courts, Prince said, the lawsuit likely would have never materialized.

Keller and other lawmakers who support House Bill 2011 said it clearly isn’t enough to have preemption built into the law, since despite prohibitions on the act, localities continue to enact local ordinances regulating the possession and transportation of firearms and ammunition components.

“This legislation provides for better enforcement of Pennsylvania’s current state pre-emption of local firearms and ammunition regulations,” Keller said in a statement following Tuesday’s committee vote. “Local governments have been passing ordinances regulating firearms in defiance of the state’s Crimes Code, resulting in confusion for gun owners who don’t know they are breaking the law.

“The end result is that citizens can be forced to incur significant expenses to hire attorneys to challenge these illegal and unconstitutional ordinances,” Keller continued. “My bill would correct the problem.”

The five legislators who voted against the measure were Thomas Caltagirone, the minority chair on the House Judiciary Committee, as well as members Matthew Bradford, Vanessa Brown, Madeleine Dean and John Sabatina.

All are Democrats.

Five other Democrats supported the measure, as did all of the Republicans on the committee.

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