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USA

When Cities Try to Limit Guns, State Laws Bar the Way

After a gunman put the Philadelphia police through a lengthy standoff on Wednesday, Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, seized the moment to push for tougher gun measures, and admonished lawmakers for their inaction.

[Here is what we know about the Philadelphia police shooting.]

“If the state and federal government don’t want to stand up to the N.R.A. and some other folks, then let us police ourselves,” Mr. Kenney said at a Wednesday night news conference. “But they pre-empt us on all kinds of gun control legislation.”

“Our officers need help, they need help with gun control,” Mr. Kenney added. “They don’t deserve to be shot at with an unlimited supply of weapons and unlimited supply of bullets.’’

How much power cities, towns and counties have to regulate firearms within their borders depends on state law. In most states, they have very little. As of December, 43 states had laws on the books barring local governments from adopting nearly any gun regulation that would go beyond state law. Pennsylvania is one of them: Its cities are allowed to adopt their own restrictions on the public carrying of firearms, but that is about it.

In Kentucky, it can be a misdemeanor punishable by jail time for a city official even to vote for a local gun ordinance that goes further than state law. In Florida and Arizona, officials can be fined and removed from office for adopting such an ordinance.

Even when cities are able to adopt more restrictive gun measures, their effect stops at the city limits. Weapons can still cross into the city readily from surrounding areas, or even surrounding states, with laxer rules.

In Philadelphia’s case, the four closest neighboring states — New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and New York — have fairly strong gun laws, according to experts. But other nearby states, like Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia, have among the nation’s weakest.

In 1993, the City Councils of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia banned assault weapons within their limits. The State Legislature responded by passing a law that effectively repealed the ordinances, and state judges ruled that guns could be regulated only at the state level, not by municipalities.

The October 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a gunman killed 11 people, prompted the city to try again. The mayor signed legislation in April restricting the use of assault-style weapons within the city. But the legislation is being challenged in court, and is not being enforced until the case is decided.

Chicago’s longstanding efforts to control guns were upended over the last decade by the courts and the state. The city maintained a gun registry from 1968 to 2013, and after 1982 it refused to register any handguns, effectively banning civilians from keeping them in the city. But in 2010, the Supreme Court held that state and local gun regulations, like federal law, are subject to the Second Amendment. Illinois responded with legislation that undid Chicago’s ordinance.

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CreditMaddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Many cities have run buyback programs to try to get some guns off the streets — a relatively easy step, since they are voluntary and generally require no new legislation. But taking a few hundred or even a few thousand weapons out of circulation barely dents the nation’s supply of 300 million nonmilitary firearms, nearly one for every citizen. Gun manufacturers have been adding about eight million guns a year to that total, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

This week, the mayor of San Jose, Calif., the nation’s 10th-largest city, proposed requiring that gun owners buy liability insurance. The idea behind the proposal is to provide a financial incentive for gun safety like the one for safe driving: lower insurance premiums. Gun owners might receive a discount for taking a safety course, for example, while someone with a prior domestic violence conviction might pay a high rate.

[Read more about San Jose’s different approach to gun control.]

About 20 states have comprehensive background-check laws for gun purchases. Research has shown that fewer guns tend to be used in crimes in those states, but that state background checks by themselves have not significantly reduced gun-related deaths, according to Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

The checks are more effective, experts say, when applied in tandem with other measures requiring state or local permits to buy weapons, measures that often include additional requirements for fingerprinting and handgun safety training. That combination has led to reductions in firearm homicides, suicides and shootings of law enforcement officers, as well as illegal gun trafficking.

[Read more about how online gun sales can exploit a major loophole in background checks.]

In the Heller decision in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled, 5 to 4, that the Second Amendment protected an individual’s right to own and keep firearms. The case struck down a restrictive District of Columbia statute. Two years later, in McDonald v. City of Chicago, the court ruled that state and local governments, too, were bound by the Second Amendment.

At the time, the mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, said the 2010 ruling made the city’s gun control laws “unenforceable.”

“Across the country, cities are struggling with how to address this issue,” Mr. Daley said. “Common sense tells you we need fewer guns on the street, not more guns.”

The Supreme Court’s new term begins in October, and the justices have said they would take up a New York City gun law that limits residents from transporting their guns outside their homes, even to a second home or to a shooting range for target practice. It will be the court’s first Second Amendment case in nearly a decade, and a test of the current court’s approach to gun rights.

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