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Philly Officials Sue State Over Gun Laws

Philadelphia officials struggling against a rising wave of violent crime have sued the Pennsylvania legislature, accusing it of not allowing the city to enact tougher gun laws.

The city-funded suit filed Wednesday by two City Council members alleges that state lawmakers neglected their responsibility by failing to pass tougher gun laws. They also say the state Supreme Court erred in a 1996 ruling in which it determined that gun regulation is "exclusively a matter of statewide concern."

Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller said the Legislature has tied the city's hands by refusing to give it authority to pass laws that would limit gun purchases to one a month and institute reporting requirements for lost or stolen guns or ban assault weapons, among other things.

"It's a state-created danger because our hands our tied," Miller said. "And it's the state that can help to diffuse this danger."

"The uses and dangers of guns vary geographically," states the suit filed by Miller and Darrell Clarke. "This is especially true in Pennsylvania, where in some regions guns are common for hunting animals while in urban areas they are used for killing humans."

Philadelphia recorded 406 homicides last year, the highest number in nearly a decade, and the city is on pace to surpass that total in 2007. An overwhelming majority of the homicides involve handguns, many of them stolen and unregistered, according to police.

Mayor John F. Street has urged residents to lobby state lawmakers to pass bills that would allow the city to require lost or stolen guns to be reported; limit gun purchases to one a month; require trigger locks; and increase penalties for illegal possession of weapons.

While still holding out hope for tougher state gun laws, Clark decided to pursue the lawsuit after he saw many proposals going nowhere.

"I hope that our lawsuit ends up being pointless because the Legislature says 'You know what, we have to figure out a way to stem the tide of violence," he said.

Opponents argue that allowing the city to pass its own gun laws would not actually reduce violent crime, and that only the state should be allowed to pass such laws.

Like many other states, Pennsylvania does not let municipalities set their own gun laws. The state has no waiting period before buying a gun, other than a background check, and does not allow police to restrict who can get a license to carry a concealed weapon.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit. But Arneson said he thought it would be more productive to work with the General Assembly on legislation than to spend time and money on a lawsuit.

A spokesman for House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, declined comment.

Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Gov. Ed Rendell, said the governor declined to comment on pending litigation but is "a strong proponent of allowing municipalities to enact their own gun laws."

The city has been patient with the Legislature, Miller said, and the lawsuit is a last resort.

"We haven't been successful and the lawsuit is a way to try to get the state to help us," she said.