Is City Council’s new ban on guns in city parks unconstitutional?

police at sacks playground in south philadelphia
Rikard Larma/Metro. Police canvass the area around a South Philadelphia playground where an 11-year-old boy and a 15-year-old boy were shot last year.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated Councilman Brian O’Neill voted against the legislation when, in fact, Councilman O’Neill voted in favor of the bill. Councilmen Dennis O’Brien and David Oh cast the two “no” votes.

City Council on Thursday passed legislation extending a firearms ban to all city-owned land, including municipal parks and recreation centers.

“What we’re looking to do ultimately is to find a way to make parks safer,” sponsor Councilwoman Cindy Bass said Thursday, calling the bill “one of the many steps we could take to make folks safer here in Philadelphia.”

But the bill didn’t escape the vote without any “nays” – Councilmen Dennis O’Brien and David Oh both voted against it.

“The authority to create a statewide limitation on where guns can go and how they can be brought into certain locations is the authority of the state legislature,” Oh said.

Still, the bill was crafted with Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration and Nutter is expected to sign it into law.

“Since I’ve been on board as the chair of parks and recreation, I have been concerned about violence that we see in our recreation centers,” Bass said, ticking off several recent incidents.

“We need to make these places safer. I want to be able to send my child to my neighborhood recreation center and feel comfortable that my child is safe and that they’re in a good environment.”

She noted weapons are already banned from municipal government buildings like City Hall, where Council conducts its meetings.

“You cannot bring a firearm into this building and so if it’s good enough for members of City Council, why wouldn’t we want to do this?” she said.

Oh said he doesn’t think the law – which would penalize violators with a $500 fine – is possible to enforce without conducting unconstitutional searches and feels it violates the Second Amendment.

“I think it’s important that we do respect and uphold the Constitution,” he said. “Those sections that we like and those sections that we don’t really like.”

Looming legal battles?

Oh feels a legal challenge is imminent. “I don’t think this is something that would not be challenged in a court of law,” he said.

Bass said she also expects court action. “But I think that we need to proceed and see what happens and just continue on,” she said.

“This is too important. You can’t sort of sit on the sidelines and say, ‘Well, we know it’s not going to pass, we know that we’re going to have a problem out of Harrisburg.’

“We need to proceed. Time is of the essence – our young people and citizens in general, their lives are on the line.”

Heated history

Philadelphia has already waged legal battles regarding firearm legislation.

  • Pennsylvania passed a law in 1994 specifically barring municipalities from regulating guns.
  • Mayor Michael Nutter in 2008 passed a package of five city gun control ordinances, which spurred the NRA to sue the city and call for Nutter’s arrest.
  • A state appeals court eventually threw out the gun control legislation, though Nutter was not arrested. The NRA did not return calls for comment Thursday in response to the newest legislation.
  • The state Supreme Court in 1996 invalidated a city ordinance regulating assault weapons and three years later an attempt to hold gun manufacturers liable for the toll of firearm violence on Philadelphia.

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