Philly challenges state’s power over gun laws

Tamika Morales holds up a photo of her son, Ahmad, who was killed in a shooting in July. Morales is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Tamika Morales said her son had a future.

Ahmad was a 24-year-old barber, and he intended to take over his mother’s cleaning business. That was before he was fatally shot by a group of men July 3 in Point Breeze.

“Something needs to be done, and I’m tired of saying that,” Morales said. “I just feel like it’s out of control.”

Morales, who said her life has been a living nightmare since the shooting, is part of a lawsuit filed Wednesday that, if successful, could significantly alter gun laws in the city.

Philadelphia is attempting to strike down a Pennsylvania law that allows the state to overrule gun control regulations passed by local governments.

In the complaint, attorneys representing the city and residents who have lost family members to gun violence say the statutes, known as firearm preemption laws, violate a person’s right to life and are unconstitutional.

The legal action comes as Philadelphia’s homicide rate continues to climb to levels not seen in over a decade. Only Chicago has recorded more murders in 2020, and, on a weekly basis, an average of three people under the age of 18 have been shot in the city.

Mayor Jim Kenney has pointed to lax state gun laws as a reason for the increase in violence.

“This action today sends a clear message — we are fed up with the commonwealth’s continued insistence on handcuffing local governments on gun control,” Kenney said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit.

Among those named in the complaint is the Pennsylvania General Assembly and its leaders, including Republican House Speaker Bryan Cutler.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for the House GOP, blamed the policies of progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner for the spike in violence. Krasner spokeswoman Jane Roh called those allegations “complete bullsh–,” adding that prosecutors request high bail for all crimes involving firearms.

Gottesman also said preemption was an established legal principle that has been repeatedly upheld by the courts.

“Preemption is a necessary component of municipalities being creatures of the state, who retain ultimate oversight of them and their actions,” he said.

Philadelphia has tried several times to challenge the firearm preemption statute, which was enacted in 1974.

More than a decade ago, City Council President Darrell Clarke was part of an unsuccessful legal attempt to defend a series of gun control measures the city tried to enact in 2007.

City Councilwoman Cindy Bass speaks Wednesday, Oct. 7, at an event announcing the lawsuit at Happy Hollow Recreation Center in Germantown.PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Clarke and City Solicitor Marcel Pratt said that this lawsuit is different. Individuals whose lives were affected by gun violence weren’t part of that case, and it was decided on a technicality, Clarke said.

“This one is slightly different,” Pratt said. “It’s novel in some ways, but it’s based on well-settled legal principles. This particular lawsuit has not been tried by Philadelphia before.”

Pratt said the legal strategy wasn’t devised overnight and that it wasn’t just in reaction to the gun violence that the city has experienced in recent days.

Attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center and Hogan Lovells, a firm with an office in Center City, argue that the actions of the Pennsylvania legislature, by preempting local ordinances and not acting to tighten gun regulations, constitute a “state-created danger.”

“The General Assembly’s actions have stoked the gun violence in the commonwealth’s hardest-hit communities,” they wrote in the complaint.

It’s not just a Philadelphia issue, they said. Across the state, deaths involving a gun jumped 20% between 2009 and 2018, according to the lawsuit. Plaintiffs include Pittsburgh residents who have been impacted by gun violence and CeaseFirePA, a statewide organization.

Mimi McKenzie, legal director of Public Interest Law Center, called the violence a public health crisis and a civil rights issue. In Pennsylvania, Black residents are 19 times more likely to be killed by gunfire, the complaint said.

If the courts rule in the city’s favor, several gun control laws are already on the books and presumably could begin being enforced.

City Council has approved ordinances requiring a permit, instead of just a background check, to purchase a gun and imposing a limit of one firearm a month for purchasers.

Last year, Mayor Jim Kenney signed a bill banning guns from recreation centers and playgrounds. It needed state approval but never got a hearing in Harrisburg, city officials said.

City leaders announced the lawsuit at Happy Hollow Recreation Center in Germantown. Across the street, tealight candles scatter the sidewalk to mark the site of where someone was killed. In the last year-and-a-half, three homicides have occurred within 50 yards of the park.

“This isn’t supposed to happen,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass, whose district includes Happy Hollow. “They are our kids, whether we gave birth to them or not.”