Shots in the dark: The state struggles to bring sense to gun ownership

Written by Tom Waseleski on .

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Section 21 of the Pennsylvania Constitution describe a real right of the people to bear arms. But these rights are no more absolute than any other constitutional rights that must be tempered by common sense and responsibility to co-exist in harmony with other rights.

Responsibility is vital to gun ownership, because in the wrong hands or handled in the wrong way firearms can deprive other people of their life and liberty. That need for responsibility has animated efforts in Pennsylvania to pass laws in municipalities across the state to require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms.

Earlier this week, in a rare rebuff to the gun lobby, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a one-line order allowed Philadelphia's stolen handgun reporting ordinance to stand. The ruling is an encouragement to the 27 other municipalities that have passed such laws, including the cities of Pittsburgh and Erie, plus 15 others that have passed supporting resolutions.

Law enforcement agencies have backed such laws as a way to end so-called "straw purchases," whereby criminals barred from buying guns obtain them anyway from the third parties who later claim that they were lost or stolen.

State law reserves for itself the right to regulate guns, but as a practical matter "lost or stolen" ordinances do not deprive people of their guns; they merely insist that they tell authorities when they go missing as an aid to law enforcement. But the ruling by Commonwealth Court that the Supreme Court last week upheld turned on a narrow technical issue: whether the National Rifle Association-backed plaintiffs had standing to sue (it was ruled they did not).

So this court victory is a limited one and won't be secure until the General Assembly gives local communities the right to pass gun laws that best promote the safety of local residents according to their own circumstances. Obviously, cities like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh face an entirely different public safety challenge than a rural township.

There's another thing the Legislature ought to do: It ought to close a loophole that exploits a reciprocity rule between states that allows Pennsylvania residents to apply by mail to the Florida Department of Agriculture (no joke) to get a permit to carry concealed firearms in Pennsylvania, even if denied such permission by authorities here on the grounds of a criminal history.

It seems incredible, but more than 3,100 Pennsylvania residents have sought Florida permits that are valid in Pennsylvania. Although it is not known if they were barred here first, the potential for trouble is disturbing. The House Judiciary Committee will discuss a bill to close the loophole -- House Bill 2536 -- on Tuesday and the gun lobby is bound to be there in force in defense of the indefensible. We hope the Western Pennsylvanians on this committee will not be deterred from standing up for this measure in the name of sensible, responsible gun ownership.

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