In The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, writer Robert A. Heinlein famously suggested that a legislature should have an entire chamber of members whose sole task was to repeal laws. By inserting a group of politicians whose only power and function was to erase statutes, he reasoned, the jealous and self-interested members of that body would serve as one more check against overreaching on the part of the other chambers of the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive . . .
I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent — the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws. Let the legislators pass laws only with a two-thirds majority… while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere one-third minority. Preposterous? Think about it. If a bill is so poor that it cannot command two-thirds of your consents, is it not likely that it would make a poor law? And if a law is disliked by as many as one-third is it not likely that you would be better off without it? (emphasis added)
Improbably, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania–which, out of all fifty states plus assorted districts and unincorporated territories, does not exactly rank first as a shining bastion of freedom in America–appears to have stumbled into partially making one of Heinlein’s ideals a reality. Many Pennsylvania municipalities are now reading their existing ordinances very carefully and scrambling to repeal laws pre-empted by the state’s Uniform Firearms Act.
In December, Pennsylvania enacted a law providing standing to anyone who wishes to challenge existing county or municipal firearms ordinances that violate Pennsylvania’s pre-emption law. The law also empowers Pennsylvania courts to award “reasonable expenses” (which is defined as including “attorney fees, expert witness fees, court costs and compensation for loss of income”) for people who bring a successful suit against a local government entity that has passed laws. In other words: not only will the municipalities find their illegal, unenforceable ordinances struck down, but they’ll be on the hook to compensate the aggrieved party(ies) for their time and attorneys fees in bringing the legal action in the first place.
This week, the city of Allentown unanimously repealed the city’s lost and stolen gun registry, as well as a ban on weapons in parks, and city property. The city of Bethlehem followed suit yesterday, repealing an ordinance that apparently mandated a $2.00 fee for gun permits issued by the city.
The Bethlehem ordinance is an example of an outdated statute; licenses to carry firearms have been issued by county sheriffs for a good many years now. But some municipalities dominated by city councils biased against ordinary civil rights have recently been passing illegal and unenforceable lost and stolen gun ordinances for political purposes. Pittsburgh, which passed a lost/stolen ordinance in 2008, is a good example; one of its supporters even admitted her disdain for the rule of law while the measure was being debated:
“Who really cares about it being unconstitutional?” said Councilwoman Tonya Payne, a supporter [of Pittsburgh’s lost/stolen firearms ordinance]. “This is what’s right to do, and if this means that we have to go out and have a court battle, then that’s fine…
Although the cities of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Lancaster have filed a suit complaining that the new law is unconstitutional because it was passed improperly (and causing informed observers to wonder if their attorneys managed to keep a straight face while drafting the complaint,) a lot of other municipalities are simply admitting defeat. According to the Associated Press, at least twenty-two municipalities have either repealed or have indicated that they plan to repeal their firearms laws.
It turns out that protecting our basic civil rights becomes a lot easier when politicians feel it in their pocketbook when they violate them.