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Chester County Press

Township votes to enter into lawsuit against Corbett, others

11/12/2014 10:29AM ● By J. Chambless

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

The Kennett Township Board of Supervisors on Nov. 5 passed a motion to authorize its township solicitor David Sander to enter the township as a party plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, as well as Speaker of the House Samuel Smith, Lieutenant Governor James Cawley and Governor Jim Corbett.

The lawsuit opposes a recent vote by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Senate that approves House Bill 80, which significantly amends the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act (18 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6101, et seq.) and clears the way for the National Rifle Association [NRA] and other groups to sue townships and municipalities that have enacted firearms ordinances that are stricter than state firearm laws. Gov. Corbett has publicly stated that he intends to sign the bill into law.

The lawsuit has been filed by State senators Daylin Leach, minority chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Larry Farnese, Vincent Hughes; State representatives Cherelle Parker and Edward Gainey; as well as the cities of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lancaster.

The Kennett Township motion passed 3-0, under a stipulation suggested by supervisor Robert Hammaker that there would be no additional costs to the township for agreeing to be a part of the suit, other than the legal fees paid to the township solicitor in arranging to include the township as a plaintiff.

Board Chairman Scudder Stevens said that although the township's request to join the lawsuit has initially passed its deadline, he said that the request will be re-submitted soon.

Since the vote, those on both sides of the issue have weighed in with opinions. Supporters of the bill say that it prevents townships and municipalities from illegally setting restrictions that differ with the laws of the Commonwealth. Those opposed to the bill claim that it nullifies laws made by cities in an effort to make their streets safer.

The bill, approved on Oct. 20 by a 138-56 vote, gives such organizations like the NRA legal standing to bring a lawsuit to challenge these ordinances in a court of law, and if the township later acts to repeal the ordinance, it can still be found liable for damages. In addition, the bill greatly increases the damages that can be recovered by a plaintiff, including, but not limited to, attorney fees, expert witness fees, costs, and compensation for loss of income.

In a press release, Sen. Leach wrote, "In what can only be described as a gift to the NRA, the bill's supporters disregarded these rules. They used legislative tricks to obfuscate the lawmaking process, making it impossible for the public to participate in their democracy."

In Kennett Township, the supervisors agreed that the law would severely impact two firearm ordinances in the township -- Ordinances 212 and 225 -- that the were hammered out and signed into law in 2013 and 2014.

Ordinance No. 212, entitled, "Regulation of the Discharge of Firearms" and signed into law on Sept. 8, 2013, is intended "to secure the safety of persons and property within the Township and to maintain peace and order in the Township," as stated in its purpose. Under its restrictions, township residents who wish to use firearms for target practice on their property must limit the range of their shooting to beyond 150 yards of any occupied home or building, or more than 100 yards of a property line.

Further, the ordinance places restrictions on the time of day shooters can take target practice; no discharge of firearms will be permitted in the township between "sunset" and 8 a.m. Any person in violation of the ordinance will be brought before a Magisterial District Justice under the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, be found guilty of a summary offense, and receive a fine no less than $300 and no more than $1,000.

Ordinance No. 225, signed into law on Oct. 1, 2014, limits the use of firearms in the township to areas that offer appropriate safeguards, which the ordinance defines as backstops, baffles and horizontal bullet catchers.

"We went through a lot of time, energy and discussion regarding the appropriate use of guns, and we've had lawsuits that were based on this ordinance," said Stevens. "We have reviewed [our ordinances] and made amendments to make it more efficient, and it seems wholly inappropriate that having spent this energy on behalf the residents of the township, we should back off this concern right now. When this lawsuit arose and we had the opportunity to be involved, we thought it would be appropriate to look into our inclusion on behalf of the township."

Township resident Chris Burkett questioned how appropriate it is for the township to ask to become a part of the lawsuit.

"I don't how much money has spent on legal fees at this point to create the Floridian, only to have it thrown out by a judge then to recreate it," Burkett said. "It concerns me that we're butting into something that we have no business butting into."

"I don't see the value to the township in spending our money for this purpose," said Michael Elling, former Kennett Township supervisor. "I assume this lawsuit will go forward, and will be measured on its own merits. Whether we participate or not, we will benefit or lose from the decision made by the appropriate judges."

In response to Elling, Stevens said, "I've always felt that being a part of a group of municipalities that are adversely affected in the ability to exercise their constitutionally-given authority to protect the interests of residents, it was felt that having a large group of municipalities of contrasting interests would make the impact of this legislation more realistic. We have a duty to carry out that intention."

In an interview with Stevens on Nov. 10, he further echoed his support of the board's decision to enter the township's name within the suit.

"I don't think it is pandering to the electorate," he said. "This [firearm legislation] is something that the electorate wanted, and we have a burden to do our best to make sure that the oridnances remain in full force."

In further support of the board's decision, Stevens said that the two township firearms ordinances differ greatly in their purpose than House Bill 80.

"The statute that is enacted is dealing with use and ownership of transportation of guns, and what we did was not to address use and and transportation of guns, but to set up standards by which individuals can use guns within the township," he said. "There is a distinction. When we opt in, we would be raising that question, so that the courts understand that it's not a question as to whether [a resident has] the right to use and transport a gun, but under what circumstances can he or she use a gun in the township."

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail [email protected].