The National Rifle Association has enjoyed an incredible run over the past two decades, fending off virtually every attempt by gun-control advocates to pass a major federal law restricting firearms use and successfully getting behind dozens of state initiatives that ease constraints on gun ownership. Now the lobbying powerhouse is targeting city halls.
The NRA is pushing for state laws that would allow it to sue municipal officials who adopt ordinances restricting gun rights. “We have some local elected officials that think they can act like local tyrants and pass their own gun-control laws,” says Pennsylvania State Representative Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican who introduced one of the NRA-backed bills now pending.
Already, cities in Kentucky and Florida have had their power to regulate firearms ownership curbed under NRA-supported laws adopted within the past year. Under the Florida statute, municipal leaders who let any existing gun ordinances stand or who adopt new ones can be fined $5,000. They can also be fired by the governor. Louisiana, Iowa, and Wyoming lawmakers considered similar legislation this year.
Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist in Washington, says it’d be too costly for the group to push back against dozens of localities pursuing their own patchwork of rules. “I’d always rather fight any battle in a state capital than in 15 or 50 county areas,” he says. (New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg Businessweek, co-chairs a coalition of mayors that pushes for local gun laws.)
Back in 2007, a year after Philadelphia averaged more than a murder a day, city officials began pressing for state legislation that would force citizens to report lost and stolen firearms to police within 24 hours of discovering the weapons had gone missing. The idea was to crack down on traffickers who buy guns legally and then sell them on the black market. The NRA lobbied against the proposed law two years in a row, effectively killing it.
So in 2008, Philadelphia passed its own ordinance mandating the reporting, and 29 other cities followed its lead. This time the NRA took its fight to the state courts, arguing in a pair of lawsuits that city leaders lacked the power to pass the gun-control ordinances under a 1974 Pennsylvania law that leaves firearms regulation up to the state. District attorneys haven’t been enforcing the municipal measures under the same argument—which, ironically, ended up sinking the NRA’s cases: The courts decided the group didn’t have legal standing to sue because no violators had been prosecuted.
Because of the lack of enforcement, the city laws have become largely symbolic. They’re “more of a statement to the General Assembly that we need it statewide,” says Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray. Nonetheless the NRA began lobbying for state legislation that would let it sue cities that adopt the reporting rules. “All we’re trying to do is protect our citizens,” says Allentown’s Democratic mayor, Ed Pawlowski. “The legislation is absolutely insane.” The NRA declined to comment.
Pennsylvania lawmakers are slated to vote on the bill limiting the power of cities to regulate gun use in September, though no one expects that to end the skirmish. Says Chester Mayor John Linder: “The NRA is not going to relent.”