Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Brian O'Neill | March 15, 2012
America's lunatics can easily get guns. That's not news. That's olds.
We never have to wait long to confront that truth. Friends and family of Michael Schaab just buried him, the victim of a shooting rampage by John F. Shick in the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland last Thursday that also wounded five others.
By horrific coincidence, Mr. Schaab's older sister Nancy was shot and killed by her boyfriend, Jordan Just, in October 2010.
There should be a way to stem such violence, but American society is unable to come up with one. Even the mildest ordinance mentioning the word "firearm" is met with fierce resistance by the National Rifle Association, and no comparably powerful organization stands ready to take on the NRA.
Take what seems like a common-sense measure: In Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and dozens of other Pennsylvania municipalities, local laws require residents to report lost or stolen firearms within 24 hours of discovering them missing.
That's something most law-abiding people would do anyway. The ordinance isn't there for them and doesn't infringe on legal purchases. It's there to prevent straw purchases. That's where someone buys a gun for a bad guy and then, when the bad guy kills somebody and the cops trace the gun back to the owner, the straw purchaser says, "Oops, my gun must have been stolen."
Cops say that's a common scenario. It also should be clear that if you're buying a gun legally to protect yourself or your loved ones, you'd have nothing to fear from this ordinance.
Yet here's the kicker: This law is thus far strictly cosmetic and unenforced.
It's been on the books in Pittsburgh since 2008, with a potential $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail, but no one has ever been fined or prosecuted. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a single case in all of Pennsylvania in which lost and stolen gun laws have been enforced.
Localities haven't tested their own laws for fear of an NRA lawsuit. The association sued both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to overturn the laws, and in separate cases in 2010 the state's biggest cities prevailed. The courts decided the NRA and its allies had no standing to sue because they weren't being harmed by the ordinance.
The legal tangles have been enough in themselves to discourage the local laws' enforcement, but the NRA hasn't stopped there. Its supporters in America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature have drawn up House Bill 1523 to change the legal rules and give the NRA standing to sue and win more easily.
"This is designed not to pursue justice but to intimidate communities," Max Nacheman, CeaseFirePA director, said Wednesday.
CeaseFirePA isn't anti-gun, Mr. Nacheman said, but the group does favor accountability for firearms, and that's an important distinction. Nothing in these local ordinances infringes on firearm ownership because they affect only those guns that have been taken unlawfully.
"We think the solution [to gun violence] is to make it harder for bad guys to get guns," Mr. Nacheman said.
The NRA uses similar rhetoric, yet it's fighting these seemingly toothless ordinances tooth-and-nail. This bill would "rewrite legal principles to favor special interests in a way that creates two unequal justice systems in Pennsylvania," Mr. Nacheman says.
First, the bill would give anyone who legally owns a gun the standing to sue the municipalities over their requirements. It would eliminate the need to show actual harm by these stolen-gun ordinances, which is quite the legal leap. If, for example, he wanted to sue somebody for an icy sidewalk, Mr. Nacheman said, "I have to slip and break my leg to be able to sue that guy.
"Essentially, the bill moves the goal line up for the NRA and other gun groups, so that if the NRA moves the ball past the 20 it will count as a touchdown."
Second, the bill changes the rules for damages in these cases, so a successful suit could bring triple damages against the municipality. Even if a small municipality repealed its bill after a suit was filed, it could have to pay damages above and beyond the costs of filing that suit, Mr. Nacheman said.
In some ways, of course, this is a sideshow. Nobody's saying these local ordinances would solve all problems, even if enforced. The two 9 mm semi-automatic pistols that Mr. Shick carried into Western Psych have been traced back to the retailer, and the guns have not been reported stolen. (That's as much as investigators will say as the investigation continues.)
But the intensity of the battle over even impotent reforms speaks for itself. Not only can lunatics get guns pretty easily, anyone with any optimism about changing that must be crazy.