Mayor Nutter's Crackdown on Lost/Stolen Guns Comes Under Heavy Fire

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 12 | Posted Mar. 6, 2012

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On April 10, 2008, just a few months into his first term, Nutter signed into law five local gun-control ordinances, including lost/stolen, that were passed by City Council. The theory was that straw purchasers would no longer be able to use the “It was stolen” excuse, that cops could at least charge them with something, and maybe the ordinance would act as a deterrent.

Hardly a slam-dunk tactic, but city officials were desperate. The year before, 2007, had been especially bloody, with 391 homicides on the books. They were also motivated in part by the Oct. 2007 slayings of armored truck guards (and retired cops) William Widmaier and Joseph Alullo, who were gunned down in Northeast Philly by career felon Mustafa Ali, who’d gotten the handgun used in the killings from a straw buyer.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined in 2000 that straw purchases were the source of firearms in nearly half of its national gun-trafficking investigations. That’s often due to the fact that many criminals prefer new guns to the plethora of stolen guns passed around frequently in the illicit market—those guns may already be linked to other crimes or “have bodies on them.”

Law enforcement insisted straw purchasing was a serious problem in Philly, and help wasn’t coming from Harrisburg. Some lawmakers introduced bills in 2007 and 2008 intended to create a state lost/stolen law, but scores of Pennsylvania gun owners—backed by the NRA, FOAC and other gun groups—complained that while they were already law-abiding citizens responsible enough to report their guns missing, to potentially criminalize them for failing to do so was not only unfair but an infringement on their constitutional right to bear arms. The bills failed, so the mayor took it upon himself to act.

“For too long, cities have waited for Washington or Harrisburg to take the lead in the fight for the kind of commonsense gun safety measures our citizens want,” Nutter said upon signing the five ordinances. “This demonstrates what can be achieved when local governing bodies and mayors step up to take action on gun safety.”

Incensed, the NRA immediately sued the city. A Common Pleas judge struck down two of the ordinances—an assault weapons ban and a one-gun-a-month law—as unconstitutional but let the three others, including lost/stolen, stand. The judge ruled that because no one had been prosecuted under lost/stolen, the ordinance couldn’t be challenged.

But now, with HB 1523 threatening Philly’s lost/stolen law, Nutter has implored congressional leadership to oppose the bill. In a letter he sent on Feb. 20, Nutter wrote:

“These local efforts should not be seen as an affront to state authority, given that such efforts will often survive court challenge, but rather as an example of local authorities working in partnership with the statutory framework set out by the Commonwealth.

“We recognize that a policy balance must be struck between the rights of law-abiding citizens to bear arms against the value of sensible, low-impact requirements such as reporting lost or stolen weapons, which can have a significant impact on the availability of unlawful gun use by criminals,” he continued. “There simply is no reasonable basis for coercing local government away from good faith efforts to strike this balance in a measured way.”

Stolfer sees the scales tipping against gun owners. With a law on the books that potentially criminalizes legitimate gun owners for failing to report lost or stolen firearms, he says, “What’s to stop some gun-hating prosecutor from specifically targeting gun owners down the line, just to send a message?”

Stolfer lays out the scenario: “The cops come to the door. You say, ‘No, sir, I didn’t report it stolen.’ So now they arrest you because you were negligent. They put you in handcuffs, they go through your whole house and take all your other firearms. They might have pointed guns at your wife and kids. It hits the papers. You might lose your job. Your reputation is ruined, even if you’re not charged. Say you are charged. Now you’ve got to get an attorney, you know what that costs? Now the judge says, ‘This is a horrible abuse of the system’ and drops all the charges. Now you’ve still got the attorney’s fees. The DA has confiscated all your guns and he’s in no hurry to give them back. And now they revoke your carry permit because you were negligent, or they say you violated the ‘character and reputation’ clause.”

And to Stolfer, this isn’t far-fetched.

“It can happen and it will happen if laws like this that threaten the law-abiders with criminal penalties and do nothing to stop violent criminals are allowed to stand,” he says. “Most responsible gun owners report their guns lost or stolen, but sometimes circumstances prevent that, or people suddenly get busy and can’t do it within 24 hours, or people don’t trust the authorities to do the right thing. There’s no protections for them. It’s absolutely unfair.”

And in case anyone wants to brush off his concerns as baseless paranoia, Stolfer says that all one has to do is look at the February 2011 incident involving Montgomery County gun-rights activist Mark Fiorino. PPD officers drew their weapons on Fiorino, who was open-carrying his firearm (which is legal) in Northeast Philly, and detained him for 40 tense minutes. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the PPD last month on behalf of Fiorino, who’s become a cause celebre for the gun-rights crowd that believes law enforcement—and by extension the government—has no respect for, or belief in, the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

“The track record is there on laws they have abused, as directed by the policymakers,” says Stolfer. “It’s not some tin-foil-hat, sky-is-falling nonsense. It happens.”

Stolfer claims that the ordinance is already having a chilling effect on gun owners he talks to across the state. “A number have mentioned to me that they’re thinking about just getting rid of their guns because they don’t want to take any chances [with getting arrested]. It’s making life miserable for law-abiding citizens. That’s what people like Max Nacheman want.”

Nacheman is director of CeaseFirePA. He, too, believes in the Constitution.

“There is no question there’s a Constitutional right to bear arms, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have certain reasonable limitations on that right,” Nacheman says. “They say that I’m trying to ban guns—I love getting the emails at all hours of night talking about how we’re trying to ban guns. We’re not trying to ban guns.”

But, he says, “A small burden on a law-abiding gun owner [to report a firearm lost or stolen], that’s a pretty small price to pay if you’re gonna get another gun criminal in jail and prevent a homicide.”

Setting the legal arguments regarding state pre-emption aside, Nacheman and other lost/stolen advocates could make a strong case for opposing HB 1523 if they can establish that it works; that the tangible benefits in combating straw purchasers and gun violence outweigh the potential risks to law-abiding gun owners.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 12 of 12
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1. Ed said... on Mar 7, 2012 at 04:19AM

“The article states, "If the bill makes it to Gov. Corbett’s desk, no one’s sure if he’ll sign it. Given his pro-gun track record, though, it seems a safe bet. Corbett’s office did not respond to requests for comment."

If you search the web loking for "Attorney General Corbett's Letter to Adams County DA, explaining the illegality of such laws". You will see a letter written by Tom Corbin, written when he's was Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

With Tom's past opinion regarding lost and stolen and other local gun laws, I belive that overnor Corbett would sign this bill ASAP.”

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2. Jim said... on Mar 7, 2012 at 10:05AM

“Ed - you skipped past the part where the former Philly DA said the same thing. And, notice that the politician from Philly (Farnese) admits the ordinances are illegal (if the law penalizes municipalities for illegal gun ordinances, lost/stolen ordinance is repealed, i.e. it is illegal).

If you break the law, even a law with which you don't necessarily agree, you stand the possibility of losing property (pay a fine) or liberty (go to jail) or even your life if it's a serious enough crime. What makes the city of Philadelphia so special that their politicians shouldn't be subjected to the same rules as you and me?”

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3. Robert said... on Mar 7, 2012 at 10:41AM

“Mr. Goldberg,

I want to commend you on a very fair and thought provoking piece of Journalism. It sounds like the police might have something that works and it's just a matter of convincing justifiably wary gun owners. I do not own a gun but like Mr. Stolfer I believe in the 2nd Amendment and most articles I read about guns are full of attacks and name calling from both sides. This article is refreshing and it gives the possibility that the compromise the Mayor is looking for can be reached if both sides try to work together.”

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4. kliffee said... on Mar 7, 2012 at 12:10PM

“Seriously, Mr. Stolfter. Who loses their gun? What, you dropped it on the way to the supermarket? Reporting a missing or stolen gun is right for the safety of society. Only people who own guns illegally would not report a missing/stolen gun. There is no better way possible to deter criminals from getting their hands on guns. And if a person who is selling guns to people they shouldn't and they repeatedly report their guns 'lost' or stolen, then we obviously need to keep an eye on this person.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Mar 7, 2012 at 04:24PM

“So the City of Philadelphia and its do as I say mayor, who rather than setting an example of lawfullness, pass stunt illegal laws that repulsed even gun-grabber Lynne Abraham, don't arrest and prosecute anyone fearing the stunt will be exposed, and it's all OK, 'cause they said just the right PC words.
Wait till this new law passes; you'll really hear whining.”

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6. louie said... on Mar 8, 2012 at 09:36AM

“kliffee,

I suggest you pose your question to the 50 or so Philly PD officers(?) that "claim" to have lost their dept.-issued weapons.

These so-called "law-enforcement professionals" sure have alot of excuses for "stolen" and "lost" weapons.

You want to deter criminals?

How about "Truth In Sentencing," for starters. Take a peek at the lengthy records of the half-dozen thugs that shot down PPD officers over the past several years. Every one of 'em has a record as long as their arm, yet they were parrolled, and allowed to kill Philly Police officers.

What say you, genius?”

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7. kliffee said... on Mar 8, 2012 at 05:33PM

“I'm missing your point, Louie. Police officers should have to report a 'lost' gun, too. These criminals who have a lengthy record shouldn't have been on the streets or with guns. Where did they get their guns? Most definitely from straw purchases. What, you don't think we should be responsible with our guns and report if they are stolen or lost?”

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8. MG said... on Mar 8, 2012 at 09:07PM

“Good article that basically presents both sides of the issue including the general ineffective nature of this current local ordinance on illegal straw purchases, the overly aggressive even paranoid effect by Stolfer to get it off the books (really 1 case justifies his point?), and efforts to try to find some common ground.

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9. Anonymous said... on Mar 9, 2012 at 10:29PM

“There is no gun registration in Pennsylvania which would establish any presumption of gun ownership. And regardless, thanks to the Fifth Amendment, any accused "gun loser" may refuse to answer police questions about the recovered gun.

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10. Anonymous said... on Mar 9, 2012 at 10:38PM

“Cute how you substituted "ineffective" for "illegal."
Are there any other illegal laws you want to defend?

“Good article that basically presents both sides of the issue including the general ineffective nature of this current local ordinance on illegal straw purchases,"”

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11. Anon said... on Mar 12, 2012 at 11:12AM

““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.”

Yes, war is hell, but people have been going to war and killing each other since long before guns were invented. Just sayin'”

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12. Louie said... on Mar 14, 2012 at 11:50AM

“kliffee,

What 'Should be,' and 'What is,' are two different things. Please remove your rose-colored glasses.

PPD officers(?) SHOULD patrol the City. They DON'T!

PPD officers(?) SHOULD be PRO-active; they're not. They're RE-active. Well, sometimes.

A convict, convicted of over a dozen violent crimes SHOULD NOT BE PAROLED, but he was. RESULT...One dead PPD officer.

Every PPD officer shot and killed over the past 7 years was gunned down by a violent criminal who has a violent criminal record. How'd they get out of prison?

Philly courts are notorious for plea bargaining with violent criminals, who are responsible for many, many cases of violent crime. This is FACT.

Soft on crime and criminals.

Bore-ass harassment of law-abiding citizens.

And you tell me that Nutter and Ramsey don't have an Anti-Gun agenda?

C'mon, man, wake up!

Look at the Occupy A-holes! Nutter had no problem paying out well over a million dollars to babysit these freaks, instead of hiring more cops.”

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