The state of Pennsylvania has a pretty strong firearms preemption law on the books that forbids cities and townships from regulating the “lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components”, but officials in the Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion Township seemingly paid no attention to that statute when they approved sweeping new restrictions on gun stores earlier this year.
Now the state’s Firearms Owners Against Crime is warning the township that it’s in danger of being sued over the new ordinance, and a letter from Second Amendment attorney Joshua Prince urging the board of commissioners to repeal the ordinance also includes the threat of criminal complaints if commissioners want to fight it out and defend the indefensible.
The ordinance restricts gun sales to four mostly commercial areas in the township, and the businesses that sell there will have to follow new safety protocols — like having security cameras. They also have to be at least 1,000 feet away from schools. Additionally, new firearms businesses cannot operate inside people’s homes.
Lower Merion officials unanimously passed the ordinance on April 19. Some residents had been fighting for these types of regulations since last year, when a firearms business opened in Bala Cynwyd.
A majority of commissioners said they were confident the ordinance would survive a legal challenge because it’s a zoning change focused on firearms sales, rather than an attempt to regulate possession.
But Thursday’s letter argues the enactment of the ordinance “constitutes a criminal offense” by violating Pennsylvania’s preemption statute.
The preemption law bans municipalities from enacting stricter gun regulations than the state. Philadelphia has tried and failed for years to pass firearms regulations — which have been shut down in city court and challenged by Gun Owners of America.
This isn’t the first time Lower Merion has faced litigation over a firearms ordinance. The township of over 64,000 residents failed to restrict guns in public parks after it was sued by the same organization (FOAC). The Commonwealth Court sided with the FOAC.
Township Board of Supervisors President Todd Sinai and Township Manager Ernie McNeely both declined WHYY News’ requests for comment, saying they cannot comment on threatened or actual litigation.
When the ordinance passed, Sinai said “[he looked] forward, if it comes to that…in defending our right as a municipality to have self-determination in this state.”
It’s “concerning” said attorney Joshua Prince, who represents the FOAC, when a “government seems to believe that they are somehow above the law.” He says the ordinance restricts people’s civil liberties and constitutes “misdemeanors of the second degree.”
This should be a slam-dunk for Prince and FOAC. The state’s preemption law specifically prohibits localities like Lower Merion Township from regulating the transfer of firearms, and yet the city has imposed a number of conditions on commercial transfers. The township is trying to do an end run around the firearms preemption language by couching their conditions in zoning laws rather than a specific ordinance regulating gun sales, but the effect is still the same.
We’re seeing these same kinds of attempts to push gun stores out of the public square and into the fringes all over the country, including in red states like Alabama, and it’s great to see gun owners and Second Amendment supporters push back. For now the township officials seem intent on defending their ordinance in court, but given that they’ve already lost one fight over “sensitive places” the common sense and reasonable move for them would be to simply strike these ridiculous zoning laws from the books before they cost the taxpayers more money… or before the commissioners themselves end up charged with a crime.