Controlling Guns in Philadelphia

A violence-plagued city bumps up against a rural state's law.

By + More

Homicides were rising twice as fast as in other large cities—an average of one gunshot murder a day. If those statistics from Philadelphia in 2006 were terrifying, the numbers in City Council member Darrell Clarke's district were even worse. On some blocks, the chance of getting shot was roughly 1 in 50. The problem seemed clear: The city needed tools to keep guns away from violent criminals.

But Clarke has since learned that in Philadelphia, as elsewhere, tightening gun laws is no simple task. Pennsylvania, whose Constitution explicitly gives citizens a right to defend themselves, is among a majority of states that forbid cities to pass gun laws stricter than those enacted by the state. A challenge to these so-called pre-emption laws—laws pushed by the National Rifle Association—has made Philadelphia a major battleground over the Second Amendment.

The debate took off amid the violence of 2006 when a group of politicians, including Democratic Gov. Edward Rendell, asked the state legislature for a hearing on the problem. The Republican-led body did so only after the Philadelphia Democrat chairing the House appropriations committee threatened to hold up the state budget if it didn't.

The divide that emerged mirrored the demographic split over gun control nationwide. Urban politicians wanted laws limiting handgun purchases to one a month and requirements that owners report lost or stolen guns. And they called for an end to the pre-emption law. But Pennsylvania, where some school districts mark the opening of hunting season with a holiday, is a largely rural state. And rural legislators opposed the measures.

Change of heart. Last year, with Democrats in the statehouse, the gun control advocates regrouped and, borrowing a move from the NRA playbook, took polls. They made a difference. Republican Rep. Kate Harper of suburban Philadelphia initially opposed the gun limit, advocating instead tougher enforcement of existing laws. But when she saw that her constituents largely favored the limit, she changed her mind. Countering, Republicans proposed hiring 10,000 more police officers. "Guns aren't the problem," says Rocco Ali, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs. "The problem is the criminal element." Once again, the bills died.

Undeterred, Philadelphia passed laws in May targeting handguns and illegal purchases. The city can't implement them, of course. So the council has filed a lawsuit to challenge the pre-emption law. Even if they fail again, council members say they hope a court case will change legislators' minds.