Note: This guide was updated on August 15, 2019.

To help you understand your rights and protections, the City of Philadelphia is creating action guides on federal policies. The action guides include facts, ways you can help, and other resources.

Philadelphia has the fifth highest rate of firearm homicide among peer cities in the country. Although violent crime is declining in Philadelphia, homicides have increased by 10% from 2017 to 2018.

Here in the City of Philadelphia, the Roadmap to Safer Communities is a comprehensive five year strategy that has evidence based approaches and many programs that work to reduce violence.

The City cannot reduce violence alone, though. We need action from the Pennsylvania legislature and the U.S. Congress to make our city’s residents safer.

Learn more about current federal and state-level gun policies. Then find out about City programs, how you can contact your representative, and other ways you can take action.

Know the facts

How deadly is gun violence in the United States, in Pennsylvania, and in Philadelphia?

The United States has the 28th highest rate of gun violence in the world. Nationally, 74% of homicides in the United States were committed with a firearm in 2017. Since January 1, 2019, there have been 259 mass shootings and almost 10,000 total incidents involving firearms nationally.

Pennsylvania ranks 26th among the states for the highest rate of gun homicides. In 2017, 1,636 people died from firearm related incidents in Pennsylvania.

Across the state of Pennsylvania in 2018, domestic violence abusers used guns in 58 percent of domestic violence homicides, shooting and killing 71 people.  

Philadelphia has the fifth highest rate of firearm homicide among peer cities in the country. 83 percent of Philadelphia homicide victims were killed by gunshot in 2016. Although violent crime is declining in Philadelphia, homicides have increased by 10% from 2017 to 2018.

Guns are more lethal than other comparable weapons. A novice shooter using a handgun can fire around 3 shots per second. During the October 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the shooter converted a semi-automatic gun to replicate automatic gun fire, firing up to around 400 rounds per minute.

What federal and constitutional laws regulate gun ownership?

The “right of the people to keep and bear arms” in the United States is protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Federal law prohibits certain people from owning firearms including individuals with certain kinds of criminal records, mental illness or substance abuse; immigrants without legal status, veterans who left the military with a dishonorable discharge; anyone with a permanent restraining order.  There are others that are barred from owning firearms, and a full list of firearms prohibitions can be found here.

Federal law requires that licensed gun dealers conduct a background check, through a database run by the FBI, to see if the customer is among those prohibited from owning a gun.

The legal system has loopholes which results in people owning guns who, by law, should not have a gun.  For example, non licensed dealers  that sell guns at gun shows are not required to do background checks under federal law. Incomplete listings of criminal cases within the FBI database can also lead to licensed gun dealers selling to a person who technically should not have a gun.

Most gun controls exist at the state level, with varying levels of restriction depending on the state.

What gun control laws does Pennsylvania currently have?

Pennsylvania has fewer gun control laws and higher rates of gun death than our neighboring states of New York and New Jersey. New York and New Jersey have banned certain semi-automatic  weapons and high capacity magazines in addition to enacting state laws mandating universal background checks for sellers. New York and New Jersey also have lower rates of gun death. In 2016, New York and New Jersey witnessed 4.4 deaths and 5.5 deaths per 100,000 people respectively. PA witnessed 12 deaths per 100,000 people in 2016.

Pennsylvania does not require background checks for every gun sale. PA requires firearm dealers to conduct a background check on potential buyers purchasing from a licensed seller and all handgun sales must go through a licensed seller or a county sheriff’s office, and include a background check. However, this law does not apply to semi-automatic rifles or other rifles and shotguns during unlicensed sales. Individuals who have been convicted of a violent crime, declared mentally ill by the court, and are subject to an active protection from abuse order are prohibited from purchasing a handgun.

Pennsylvania has an automatic prohibition on purchasing or possessing firearms from individuals charged with domestic violence. Pennsylvania law, Act 79, mandates individuals convicted of domestic abuse to relinquish weapons within 24 hours for all cases adjudicated by a judge.

Pennsylvania does not allow for the temporary removal of firearms from those who pose a risk to themselves or others, or an Extreme Risk Protection Order. These have been shown to decrease suicides and have the potential to avert mass shootings.

Pennsylvania does not require firearm owners to have a license. Federal law does not require firearm owners to have a license. Only three states (New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts) require firearm owners to have a license.

Pennsylvania prohibits gun purchases from people who have three or more driving under the influence (DUI) convictions within 5 years.  The current law, however, does not prohibit gun possession for this group. People with DUI convictions are four to five times more likely to be arrested for violent or firearm-related crimes in the next two decades.

Pennsylvania law prevents law enforcement agencies from having firearm registries. Federal law does not require firearm owners to register their firearm. Five states have a firearm registry: California, Hawaii, Maryland, New York and the District of Columbia. PA records handgun sales in a state database. However, the database does not track sales of long guns (such as shotguns or assault rifles). Currently, section 6111.4 of PA law states that no government or law agency may maintain or operate a firearm registry.

Pennsylvania controls the right of Philadelphians to “open carry” and “concealed carry” guns. A person can “open carry” a gun, such as wearing it in a holster, or on a belt without a permit everywhere in Pennsylvania except in Philadelphia.  In Philadelphia, a permit is required to carry a gun or transport one in a vehicle. 

Pennsylvania does not prohibit assault weapons. Assault weapons are defined differently. Different definitions lead to states banning different guns. For example, California bans around 75 “assault” weapon types, and New Jersey bans around 65. Assault weapons have been used in some of the deadliest mass shootings in the United States including the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016, which left 49 dead and 53 injured, and in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut (28 dead, 2 injured).

Gun laws in Pennsylvania make it easy to buy and traffic guns.  In recent years, more trafficked guns have been coming from Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is a popular choice for gun purchasers due to its proximity to I-95 and to states with stricter gun laws (New York and New Jersey). From 2012 to 2014, Pennsylvania ranked eighth for highest number of guns exported to other states and recovered in crimes, with a total of 5,844 such guns. States like Virginia have limited handgun purchases to one per month, and reduced interstate gun trafficking by 35-70 percent. In addition, over half of gun owners store some or all of their guns unsafely (unlocked or loaded). This can pose a risk to those in the home and also contribute to guns being diverted to the underground market.

How does this affect Philadelphia?

Under current State law, Philadelphia is unable to pass laws on gun ownership or selling a gun. Philadelphia is unable to create restrictions on guns because of a state law  that says “No county, municipality or township may in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components when carried or transported for purposes not prohibited by the laws of this Commonwealth.”

Philadelphia City Council has passed gun-control bills in the past, however the courts have struck down these bills. In 1993, Philadelphia City Council passed a bill on banning assault style weapons. However, the State of PA passed a law repealing the ban and then the State Supreme Court  struck down the ban. In 2008, the Commonwealth Court struck down city ordinances banning assault weapons and limiting handgun purchases to one per person per month. Even though the City appealed this decision, in 2009, the Commonwealth Court again struck down both ordinances.

What is being done to address gun violence in the city?

The Philadelphia Roadmap to Safer Communities is a five-year (2019-2024), comprehensive action plan that utilizes a public health approach to gun violence prevention and involves multiple City agencies and partners working together to address the underlying factors that contribute to gun violence.  The action plan includes $31.5 million of new investments for FY20-FY24 for:

  • The Philadelphia Police Department’s “Operation Pinpoint,” a combination of intelligence-based and community-oriented policing, to combat gun violence and improve the quality of life for Philadelphia’s residents.  Pinpoint will allow for 24/7 real time data to be available for police officers in neighborhoods, equipping them with the intelligence necessary for modern day community policing. The intelligence gathered by pinpoint is also being used to inform the implementation of the Philadelphia Roadmap to Safer Communities, including targeting resources to those areas most at risk of gun violence.
  • Philadelphia’s Offices of Adult and Juvenile Probation, the Philadelphia Police Department, the Office of the District Attorney, Office of Violence Prevention and Philadelphia Anti-drug/Anti-violence Network (PAAN),  have partnered together to operate the Youth Violence Reduction Partnership (YVRP), which offers frequent home visits, drug treatment, job readiness services, as well as referrals for mental and behavioral health counseling for participants and their parents. YVRP has recently expanded its geographical reach to support more youth at risk of gun violence.  
  • Investing over $700,000 to Grassroots Organization to Combat Gun Violence. In June 2019, the City of Philadelphia awarded more than $700,000 to nearly four dozen community-based organizations that offer violence prevention services and supports.
  • City of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania State officials are currently exploring relaunching an evidenced-based gun violence intervention ‘Focused Deterrence’ model.   In addition, funding from the City and State is supporting the expansion of our Community Crisis Intervention program (CCIP).  CCIP uses a public health approach to preventing gun violence similar to the evidence-based Cure Violence model.  These crisis workers are viewed as credible messengers in the community and serve as “boots on the ground” to help interrupt the cycle of violence in neighborhoods experiencing high rates of gun violence. 
  • Investing over $700,000 to Grassroots Organization to Combat Gun Violence. In June 2019, the City of Philadelphia awarded more than $700,000 to nearly four dozen community-based organizations that offer violence prevention services and supports.

City Council President Darrel L. Clarke plans to introduce legislation to ban firearms at recreation centers. Violators would be fined up to $2,000 dollars, face up to 90 days in prison, or both. The Philadelphia delegation in Harrisburg has expressed interest in introducing a companion state bill. City Council has passed other gun control measures that can only be implemented if the State gives Philadelphia the authority to pass local firearm laws.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf will sign an executive order making sweeping changes to State agencies and programs to better target the public health crisis of gun violence. The initiatives include new oversight and data sharing measures, strategies to reduce community gun violence, efforts to combat mass shootings, and measures to address the rising number of gun-related domestic incidents and self-inflicted shootings, including suicides by gun.

Make sure your voice is heard.  Our state and federal legislators have the power to keep our residents and police safer. It is critical that Philadelphians contact their representatives and share your opinion on legislation that would help prevent gun violence and save lives.

Below are a powerful examples of potential gun control policy changes you can advocate for.  

Join Mayor Kenney to:

Secure Philadelphia’s ability to pass local, common-sense firearm laws

  • Remove state preemption of local gun laws to allow Philadelphia and other municipalities in the state of Pennsylvania to pass common sense gun legislation

Establish an assault weapons ban

  • Easy-to-obtain assault weapons, once banned under U.S. law, are a common thread connecting many of the deadliest mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. in the past few years. 
  • Some gun violence experts and policymakers, including PA Governor Tom Wolf, are advocating for a new federal assault weapons ban.

Create reasonable rules for safe, legal firearm sales

  • Require a 3-day waiting period prior to purchasing a gun
  • Limit gun sales to one-per-month to help fight gun trafficking
  • Establish mandatory gun-safety training
  • Require owners to store their firearms and ammunition responsibly

Prevent violent and dangerous individuals from owning guns

  • Tighten rules for gun relinquishment for those disqualified from gun ownership
  • Require gun relinquishment for people with a history of violent misdemeanor convictions or 3 or more DUI convictions
  • Establish a digital gun sales/tracking database to help enforce current laws that prohibit certain persons from purchasing or possessing firearms
  • Expand background check requirements to include privately purchased long guns, rifles, and shotguns
  • Require reporting of lost or stolen guns within 72 hours
  • Pass an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) to be issued which would allow family, friends, and law enforcement to petition the court to prohibit possession of firearms from harmful individuals  

Getting resources to victims and their families

  • Pass a firearms tax and dedicate revenues to victims and families impacted by gun violence
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