PHILADELPHIA — Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council leaders today stood with residents whose lives have been grievously harmed by gun violence to announce a major legal action against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The plaintiffs in the action, the City of Philadelphia, residents who have lost family members to gun violence, and CeaseFirePA, filed a lawsuit in state court that claims the Pennsylvania General Assembly handcuffs local governments so that they cannot enact or enforce even simple, well-researched policies that have been repeatedly shown to save lives, while it also refuses to enact statewide gun safety laws.
“In short, the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s actions have stoked the gun violence epidemic” in Philadelphia and elsewhere across Pennsylvania, the lawsuit states.
This year, gun violence has reached epidemic levels throughout the Commonwealth. In Philadelphia, shooting incidents are up 57 percent over 2019, and the number of shooting victims is up 47 percent. The number of shooting victims under 18 is up 71 percent. Gun violence continues to disproportionately impact low income and minority communities across the Commonwealth. In Philadelphia, firearm homicide is the leading cause of death for Black men and youth between age 15 and age 34, and 85 percent of 2018 shooting victims were Black. Even before this year, gun violence was on the rise throughout the Commonwealth—the rate of gun deaths in Pennsylvania increased 20 percent from 2009 to 2018.
The lawsuit takes direct aim at the Firearm Preemption Laws in Pennsylvania, which prevent cities like Philadelphia or any other municipality from enacting their own common-sense local gun laws that have been demonstrated to save lives.
“By enacting and continuing to ratify the Firearm Preemption Laws, the General Assembly has increased gun violence in these municipalities, and they have affirmatively endangered the lives, health and safety of the Individual Petitioners,” the lawsuit states, adding, “In creating and perpetuating this danger of their own making, Respondents have violated the inherent and indefeasible right to enjoy and defend life and liberty under Article 1, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.”
The lawsuit asks the court to declare that Respondents in state government have violated Pennsylvanians’ right to life under the PA Constitution, and to vacate the Firearm Preemption Laws so that Philadelphia and other municipalities may implement sensible and lawful measures to prevent gun violence.
“This action today sends a clear message—we are fed up with the Commonwealth’s continued insistence on handcuffing local governments on gun control,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “Two years ago we declared gun violence a public health emergency and our City agencies have implemented proven approaches to reduce gun violence. But until state lawmakers stop blocking local governments from enacting and enforcing common sense gun laws, our fight for violence reduction and meaningful gun reform will not end. This lawsuit is a big step in that direction.”
Earlier this year, City Council voted to authorize the retention of counsel “to file a lawsuit compelling the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to carry out its obligation to protect the citizens of Pennsylvania by enacting, or authorizing municipalities to enact, commonsense, constitutional legislation that addresses the public health crisis of gun violence.”
One example of local gun safety legislation is Philadelphia’s “Safe Havens Law.” Last year, led by Council President Darrell L. Clarke (5th District) and Councilmember Cindy Bass (8th District), Council passed a law that prohibits guns and other deadly weapons from playgrounds and recreation centers to protect children and families. While Council and the Mayor swiftly approved the law, necessary legislation at the state level was blocked from even a public hearing by leadership in the General Assembly.
Philadelphia has passed a number of other evidence-based and sensible gun regulations—including gun licensing and one-gun-a month—which it has been barred from enforcing by the Commonwealth’s Firearm Preemption Laws.
“We have far too many guns on the streets of Philadelphia, including the kinds of high-powered assault weapons used in war,” said Council President Clarke. “If the Pennsylvania General Assembly refuses to do anything to help us protect our citizens, then they should not have the right to prevent us from taking the kinds of actions we know we need to keep our residents safe from harm.”
Mayor Kenney and Council President Clarke announced the lawsuit’s filing at a playground and recreation center, Happy Hollow, on Wayne Avenue in the city’s Germantown section, an area hit hard by gun violence. There have been multiple shootings on Wayne Avenue near the recreation center over the past year, and three fatal shootings within 50 yards of the facility over the last 18 months.
The Mayor and Council President were joined at the news conference by numerous members of Council who work to address gun violence, including Councilmember Bass, whose district includes Happy Hollow and who chairs Council’s Public Health and Human Services Committee, Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. (4th District), who chairs Council’s Public Safety Committee, and Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson (2nd District), who chairs Council’s Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention. Dr. Thomas Farley, the city’s Health Commissioner, also attended and spoke about the public health crisis of gun violence in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent Hughes (7th District), Minority Chair of the Appropriations Committee, who has worked in Harrisburg for years for stronger gun laws, spoke in support of the lawsuit. “I am extremely supportive of the legal action officials from the City of Philadelphia are taking to address gun violence in the city,” Sen. Hughes said. “We have been pushing for solutions in Harrisburg for many years and pleas and policy proposals have fallen on deaf ears. There is a clear need to enact stricter laws to address the gun violence epidemic and the public health crisis we are facing across the commonwealth.”
Three plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, Stanley Crawford, of Northeast Philadelphia, Cheryl Pedro, of Strawberry Mansion, and Tamika Morales, of Southwest Philadelphia attended the press conference and spoke of the deep pain they and their families have endured because of gun violence.
Crawford’s son, William A. Crawford, 35, was shot and killed by a handgun in 2018 while he stood on the front steps of his sister’s home in the Rhawnhurst section of the Northeast. The lawsuit details how the deceased’s sister and her son found him “minutes after he was shot on the steps of their home in broad daylight.”
“Letting Philadelphia pass gun safety laws is about recognizing the humanity of people in this city who face gun violence,” Mr. Crawford said. “Because right now, the lack of action and the lack of urgency is absolutely inhumane.”
Tamika Morales, a lifelong Philadelphians who grew up in South Philadelphia and currently resides in the Eastwick section of the city, has been directly impacted by gun violence and lives in constant fear of gun violence in her community, the lawsuit claims.
Ms. Morales’s 24-year-old son, Ahmad Morales, was among the 30 people shot in Philadelphia over Independence Day weekend this year. In the early evening of July 3, 2020, Ahmad was gunned down by a group of men in a car while he walked to a corner store on 24th Street and Oakford Avenue in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Philadelphia. To date, no arrests have been made and the murder weapons have not been recovered.
Ahmad was an energetic, hard-working young man who had overcome the trauma of losing his closest cousin to gun violence in order to graduate from Bartram High School. Ahmad was beloved by his family. His murder has devastated Ms. Morales, who describes the aftermath of her son’s death as a living nightmare. She struggles to get through each day and is worried about how she will find the strength to emotionally support Ahmad’s surviving siblings, aged 27, 13, and 9, who are traumatized by their brother’s killing.
The lawsuit was prepared and filed by the City’s Law Department, the Public Interest Law Center and Hogan Lovells US LLP.
“The General Assembly has perpetually violated the Pennsylvania Constitution by actively preventing our City from passing common sense gun laws,” said Marcel S. Pratt, Philadelphia City Solicitor. “Gun violence is ravaging Black communities and devastating our families daily, yet the General Assembly maintains a legislative scheme that knowingly makes our communities more dangerous. The apathy is bad enough, but continuing to stonewall our local government is unconscionable.”
“Gun violence is taking an enormous toll on Pennsylvanians,” said Mimi McKenzie, Legal Director at the Public Interest Law Center. “Young Black and Brown men are killed with handguns in numbers that shock the conscience. The General Assembly has been confronted with this evidence for years, but refuses to consider sensible measures that public health research and the experience of nearby states demonstrate would save lives. At the same time, the General Assembly preempts local governments from stepping in and enforcing gun safety measures. These firearm preemption laws violate the constitutional rights of the Petitioners.”
“We are bringing this legal action because even as gun violence continues to tear through this city, devastating families and terrorizing neighborhoods, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania not only refuses to act—but has prevented Philadelphia and other municipalities from taking common sense steps to stem gun violence,” said Stephen Loney, a partner at Hogan Lovells and member of the legal team representing the individual plaintiffs.
“Our complaint includes the devastating details of some of the lives that have been affected by gun violence, and the emotional cost to their families and loved ones,” Loney said. “Extensive research makes clear that enacting and enforcing certain limited measures to regulate firearms would save lives—and these measures can be narrowly tailored to pass muster under the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Second Amendment.”