Everything I believe in is right here,” says Kim Stolfer over lunch at an Olive Garden not far from his home in the outskirts of Pittsburgh. He’s pointing—not to the Kimber Ultra CDP II .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol holstered underneath his navy blazer (though he believes in that, too), but to his bag resting on a chair. It’s stuffed with papers and a laptop containing 40GB of data, studies, books and articles from the decades-long fight over gun rights in Pennsylvania.
“There is no empirical study that shows that any firearm law works to reduce crime,” insists Stolfer, who’s been at the forefront of pro-gun causes in the state for nearly three decades.
He also believes in the Constitution. Stolfer, 57, is a Vietnam vet who served in the Marines. A shooting instructor and recently retired postal worker, Stolfer is chairman of Firearms Owners Against Crime, a nonpartisan, gun-owner-advocating political action committee that a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist once said “makes the NRA look like a pack of liberal bed-wetters.”
“I thought that was pretty accurate,” Stolfer deadpans. On this day, Stolfer’s an amiable guy who hardly comes off like a “gun nut” or “bomb-thrower,” as some of his enemies on the gun-control side have called him. He’s not one of those extremists who wants to eliminate all gun laws—he says he fully supports “about 70 percent” of the gun laws currently on the books in Pennsylvania. And at one point he makes a startling admission that flies in the face of the usual caricature of the gun owner as slobbering worshipper of blue steel and bullets: “I wish guns had never been invented,” he says, “because if there were no guns, there would be no war, and once you’ve been in war ... friends of mine didn’t come home.”
But there are guns, and there’s a Second Amendment, and Stolfer’s dedicated his life to upholding it.
“The Constitution means something to me,” he says. “I swore an oath to defend it, and I will. It’s my duty to protect the rights of all law-abiding gun owners and to ensure they’re not victimized.”
That’s why he took a lead role in drafting House Bill 1523—otherwise known as the “Firearms Preemption Enhancement Bill”—sponsored by Stolfer’s close friend, gun-rights stalwart (and the left’s favorite bogeyman) state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County).
The bill, co-sponsored by 70 other legislators, was designed to counter local ordinances that have cropped up in Pennsylvania over the past few years that require gun owners to report a lost or stolen firearm to the police within a specified time frame or face the possibility of fines and/or jail time. The ordinances were put in place to crack down on straw purchasers—individuals with clean records who legally buy firearms, then illegally sell or hand them over to felons, juveniles or anyone else barred from buying and owning them—who commonly used the simple-yet-effective excuse, “Oh, it was stolen ...” when crime guns are traced back to them in order to evade prosecution.
Philadelphia was the first city to pass such an ordinance when Mayor Nutter signed lost/stolen legislation into law in 2008, providing for a $1,900 fine and up to 90 days in jail for anyone not reporting their firearm missing within 24 hours of discovery. Twenty-nine other cities, including Pittsburgh, Reading and Lancaster, have followed suit, each mandating their own time frames and penalties.
One problem, though: Every one of those laws, arguably, is illegal.
That’s because Pennsylvania has a state firearms pre-emption statute that bars local governments from enacting such ordinances: “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.”
Approved via a bipartisan 19-4 vote in the House Judiciary Committee last month and up for consideration as soon as next week, HB 1523 would allow an individual to sue any city with a lost/stolen ordinance—even if that person hasn’t actually been prosecuted under the law—and be awarded up to triple-damages plus $5,000 from the city.
The bill would also grant “a membership organization ... that is dedicated in whole or in part to protecting the legal, civil or constitutional rights of its membership”—say, the National Rifle Association, or Stolfer’s political action committee, for instance—the standing to bring similar legal action and receive damages.
Unless, as the bill states, cities with such lost/stolen ordinances rescind them after HB 1523 becomes law.
Gun-control advocates call it blackmail.
Stolfer’s got a different opinion.
“It’s called citizens demanding accountability from the government when they disobey the law,” he says. “It’s not blackmail.”
Essentially, the gunfight shapes up like this: Opponents of HB 1523—including Mayor Nutter and the Philadelphia-based anti-gun-violence organization CeaseFirePA—say the bill threatens lost/stolen laws that have become effective in convicting straw purchasers and getting illegal guns out of the hands of killers, and that the pro-gun side is putting the lives of citizens at risk over paranoid notions that someone is coming to lock them up and take their guns away.
But Stolfer and other proponents of the bill claim that lost/stolen laws do nothing to prevent crime but put law-abiding gun owners in jeopardy of unfair prosecution, and that the ordinances are really just an attempt to advance gun control’s political agenda and chip away at the pre-emption statute. They say the other side’s strategy isn’t to ban guns outright but to make owning one so burdensome and potentially costly that people will decide it’s not worth the trouble—in essence, a backdoor ban.