By John L. Micek
Pennsylvania Capital-Star Editor-in-Chief
When one of the Pennsylvania Legislature’s most conservative members announced earlier this month that she’d pledged to work with local officials and law enforcement in two counties in her north-central Pennsylvania district to pass “Second Amendment Sanctuary” ordinances that defy state and federal gun laws, the temptation at first was to laugh and shake your head in frustration.
In barely a year in the state House, Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton, has proven to be anything but shy about courting controversy. And her headline-grabbing ways are earning her comparisons to another conservative firebrand from the other side of Pennsylvania: Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, who’s turned tormenting progressives into something of a cottage industry.
So when Borowicz dropped her Jan. 8 press release, it registered as a ripple on Twitter, and then promptly disappeared. But as our colleagues at The Trace report, there’s a nationwide swell of such ordinances that has now stretched across “more than 400 municipalities in 20 states.”
Below, a quick explainer of what these laws are, and why they’re such a nettlesome issue.
What They Are: If the term sanctuary municipality sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that. As The Trace, a website that tracks gun safety and gun violence issues, reports, backers purposely modeled them on “Sanctuary Cities,” such as Philadelphia, where local officials decline to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
More from The Trace:
“The newer, Second Amendment type of sanctuary refers to a city, town, or county that has adopted a resolution rejecting the enforcement of state or federal gun laws perceived to violate the Second Amendment. Targeted regulations commonly include red flag laws, universal gun background checks, and bans on assault-style weapons.
“The specific language used in Second Amendment resolutions varies from place to place. Some are more general declarations in support of Second Amendment rights, while others specify how a community will withhold support for state or federal gun laws.”
A state’s attorney in downstate Illinois is credited with coining the term, The Trace further reports.
“We’re just stealing the language that sanctuary cities use,” Bryan Kibler, the state’s attorney in Effingham County, Illinois, told the Associated Press in 2018, according to The Trace. The county approved its own “gun sanctuary” in April 2018, according to published reports, saying gun laws then under consideration by the Illinois General Assembly were unconstitutionally broad.
As The Daily Item of Sunbury reports, the state branch of a group called Gun Owners of America has volunteers working statewide on such ordinances.
Officials in Bradford County enacted such a resolution last December, declaring the northeastern Pennsylvania county a “Second Amendment Sanctuary,” the newspaper reported. Officials in a municipality in Union County were also considering one, the newspaper reported in its Jan. 11 story.
In her statement, Borowicz said she was “expressing my complete support for Clinton and Centre counties to enact a Second Amendment Sanctuary Ordinance to protect law-abiding 76th District residents against unconstitutional gun control laws imposed in Harrisburg or Washington, D.C.”
Among those measures are a proposed “red flag” law now before the Legislature that would allow police, acting on a court order, to temporarily seize someone’s weapons if they believe they pose an immediate threat to themselves or to public safety. These “extreme risk protection order” laws, as they’re formally known, have been shown in other states to have reduced gun crimes and suicide.
While legal experts and others believe “Second Amendment Sanctuaries” are mostly symbolic and not legally binding, others fear that they could lead to expensive litigation for localities that decline to enforce state and federal gun laws.
More from The Trace:
“Last year, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson warned that sheriffs who declined to enforce Initiative 1639 — which required enhanced background checks for semiautomatic rifles — could be held liable if a law enforcement official refused to vet a gun buyer who later uses that gun to harm someone. And Colorado’s Attorney General Phil Weiser said that any sheriffs who refuse to enforce new gun laws should resign.
“Mary B. McCord, a former acting assistant attorney general for national security, argued in The Washington Post that Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions have no legal basis and that only a court can overturn a state or federal law. ‘State constitutions, statutes and common law generally affirm the ‘supremacy’ of federal and state law, meaning that local jurisdictions are preempted from enacting conflicting ordinances and resolutions,’ she wrote.”
Speaking to The Daily Item, one legal scholar said the ordinances could influence how local law enforcement does its job.
“To the extent that police chiefs and especially prosecutors view these actions by local governments as reflections of widespread community sentiment, they may feel more comfortable in adjusting their own exercise of discretion in making arrests and in charging decisions,” George Mason University law professor Nelson Lund told the newspaper. “At least in that sense, it is probably not accurate to characterize them as mere ‘publicity stunts.”
Ultimately, the final battle over these local ordinances will be waged in the courts, The Trace reported.
“The proper procedure if law enforcement officers and local governments have issue with new laws is to bring legal action in the courts, and have courts determine whether those laws are constitutional,” Jonathan Lowy, vice president of the legal action project at the gun reform group Brady, told The Trace.
It occurs to us that the Republican majority in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly now finds itself on the horns of a dilemma.
Namely, that GOP lawmakers have never been shy about rushing in to preempt local ordinances that they believe outstrip state law. And some have made headlines by blasting Philadelphia’s decision not to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
There’s now at least one documented instance of a Pennsylvania county going on record to decline to enforce state and federal gun laws. Others are in the pipeline.
So there’s only one question worth asking here of the GOP majority: Do they truly believe state law reigns supreme? Or do they only support preemption when it suits them?
The next move from the Capitol will be one to watch.
John L. Micek is the Editor-in-Chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star where this story first appeared.