January 16, 2020 – Requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns would reduce the supply of illegal handguns in Philadelphia and save lives. Gun violence is a crisis in Philadelphia, with over 100 children shot in 2019. In the face of this crisis, the City recently began enforcing an ordinance requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns within 24 hours. On December 16, the defendant in the enforcement case attempted to block the City from enforcing this law against him or anyone else, filing a motion for a permanent injunction. Now, Pennsylvanians who have experienced gun violence are fighting back in court to defend the law, which will keep illegal guns off the street.
Kimberly Burrell, of Philadelphia, and Freda Hall, of Lancaster, two mothers who have lost sons in shootings committed with guns from Philadelphia, filed a petition today to intervene to block the injunction in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. CeaseFirePA, the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network, and Mothers in Charge joined the petition. The petitioners are represented by the Public Interest Law Center and pro bono co-counsel Ned Rahn and Kevin Levy from Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP.
“This ordinance would make it harder for people who sell guns on the black market to dodge consequences when the gun they sold is used in a crime,” said Public Interest Law Center staff attorney Ben Geffen. “The people most affected by gun violence know this, and that’s why they’re taking action to make sure this law will remain in effect.”
“The issue is that these illegal guns kill. It’s heartbreaking to know that this ordinance was in place for so long and not enforced.”
In 2009, Kimberly Burrell’s 18-year-old son, Darryl Pray, was shot and killed by a man armed with an illegally obtained gun following an argument. In retaliation, another man was shot and killed that same day with another illegally obtained gun. “Imagine how many other mothers came after me,” Ms. Burrell said at a January 2019 press conference announcing that the law would be enforced, as reported by the Philadelphia Tribune. “[This law] might not have saved my son’s life. But the issue is that these illegal guns kill. It’s heartbreaking to know that this ordinance was in place for so long and not enforced.”
“Philadelphians have the right to feel safe in their city,” said Kevin Levy, an associate of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr. “The intervenors are taking a bold and courageous step to enforce their rights with this case, and Pennsylvania law requires they be heard.”
This law, if enforced, would make it easier for police to track down lost and stolen guns before they are used in crimes. It would also make “straw purchasing” more difficult. When crime guns are found in the hands of people who could not legally buy guns, it often turns out they acquired their guns from straw purchasers who bought guns for resale to ineligible buyers. The ordinance will deter such black-market sales, because now, if a crime gun is traced back to a straw purchaser in Philadelphia who then claims he had lost the gun, he will face fines or jail time.
Christian Soltysiak, Interim Executive Director and Managing Director of CeaseFirePA, explained “the City’s actions and the intervenors’ case are critical steps in fighting gun violence: it has fallen to the cities of Pennsylvania to take every action possible to protect their communities and make the streets safer. In the face of continued inaction by Harrisburg, our cities are stepping up and using every tool they have to keep guns out of the hands of those who should not have them.”
There is abundant evidence that lost or stolen guns, along with guns illegally sold by owners who could later claim that their guns were lost or stolen, are a significant source of black market firearms. After Maryland passed a similar law in 2013, it became more difficult to buy a gun on the black market in Baltimore.
Philadelphia’s ordinance was enacted by City Council in 2008. It requires gun owners to report a lost or stolen gun to the police within 24 hours of their discovery of the loss. Violators of the law can face fines of up to $2,000, and repeat offenders can also face jail time. The ordinance fills a gap in the law, because no federal or Pennsylvania law requires reporting of lost or stolen guns.
Gun violence is a public health scourge in Philadelphia. According to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, of 5,086 homicides committed between 2003-2017, 80 percent were committed with firearms, mostly with handguns. For every homicide, there are four non-fatal shootings, with 1,100 people treated in Philadelphia emergency rooms for gunshot wounds in 2016. Many shooting victims face lifelong medical consequences and disability.
This violence is not evenly distributed in Philadelphia. While firearm homicide is only the 11th leading cause of death in the City overall, it is the leading cause of death for young black men and youth in Philadelphia between the age of 15 and 34, and shootings are clustered in economically disadvantaged areas of the city.
“Gun violence is not only a public health crisis, it is a civil right issue.” said Mr. Geffen. “The easy availability of black-market guns helps turn everyday disputes into murders, and it fuels the violence that disrupts the lives of thousands of Philadelphians every single day.”