Kennett Township to repeal its gun laws in lieu of potential NRA lawsuit
By Richard Gaw
On Nov. 5, the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors 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 reasons for the township originally latching onto the lawsuit were simple: after spending the better part of a year ironing out their own gun laws, the township opposed the November vote by the State's House and Senate that approved 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.
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.
At the time, the township joined the cities of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Harrisburg in the suit filed by State senators Daylin Leach, minority chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Larry Farnese, Vincent Hughes; State representatives Cherelle Parker and Edward Gainey.
The act was signed into law on Nov. 6, given a 60-day effective date, and is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 6, 2015.
Now, as recommended by Sander, the supervisors voted 3-0 at its Dec. 17 meeting to repeal its current gun laws, to eliminate the potential of being sued by the NRA for having these laws on their books.
"For those who have been paying attention for awhile, this board has wrestled with the use of guns in the township being used in an indiscriminate manner," said Scudder Stevens, board chairman. "Up until recently, there were no effective local and municipal ordinances in place for the use of guns in the township, with particular concern for safety an reasonable standards.
"In the last day at the legislative session, an act was adopted which questions the ability of municipalities to regulate the use of guns within the Commonwealth, and gives standing to sue [municipalities] through the NRA," he added.
"At this point, when this legislation goes into effect on January 6, we could be the subject of a lawsuit brought up by the NRA and face punitive damages. Consequently, its the recommendation of Mr. Sander to repeal the township's resolution of our gun ordinances and take the safe way out, and when the lawsuit is pending is resolved in whatever way it may be, the township will re-enact its gun ordinances."
"I don't know whether I'm being paranoid, but the resources of the NRA, given its new right to standing, are vast and I think it would be naive of us to assume that our ordinance has not already been identified and targeted for challenge at the earliest moment by the NRA and/or adversely affected gun owners in Kennett Township," Sander said.
Sander said that if the township is sued by the NRA and loses, it could be subject to paying what he called "hefty damage fees," which he said include attorney's fees, expert witness fees, court costs and compensation for loss of income -- all damages that are qualified in the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act as reasonable expenses that can be awarded to a party that is successful in challenging a municipality's gun ordinances.
By agreeing to repeal its gun laws, the township is repealing ordinances 212 and 225 -- that 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.
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.
"My feelings are those of frustration with our elected representatives in our house, and with our state senators and our governor to do this in the middle of night," Leff said. "We thought we did something to protect us, and yet they're siding with the NRA. I am disappointed that the NRA is against safety."
"I have to say that I find this repulsive and repugnant, and I'm not happy to do this," Stevens said. "On the other hand, I would feel perhaps a little irresponsible if I were to play loose with the resources of the township. If there is a way to avoid the risk, then why take the risk? We could always re-do the ordinance in the future."
The board then passed a motion to Sander to draft legislation to advertise for a special meeting date to repeal the ordinances, as well as a motion to draft an ordinance that effectively repeals these laws.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail [email protected].