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State College Council Repeals Controversial Guns-in-Parks Law

by on May 09, 2011 11:50 PM

After hearing passionate appeals from supporters of the right to protect themselves and others by carrying concealed firearms anywhere ─ including local parks and municipal buildings ─ and those opposed to the presence of guns where children play and public officials deliberate over sometimes sensitive and contentious issues, a divided State College Borough Council voted Monday to bow to a higher authority: the state.

Council, meeting in special session, voted 4-3 ─ with Peter Morris, Donald Hahn and Theresa Lafer dissenting ─ to repeal a 1972 ordinance that forbids firearms in municipal parks. That ordinance, the borough's solicitor Terry Williams explained, is superseded by a 1974 state law that prohibits local governments from regulating the possession of firearms and by subsequent court decisions upholding the state statute.

Before rescinding the almost 40-year-old ordinance, however, council unanimously passed a resolution to call on the state General Assembly to amend the law to authorize municipalities to prohibit guns in certain, specific places.

"I am totally opposed to carrying firearms in municipal buildings and parks," Councilman Thomas Daubert said. "But our time would be better spent lobbying [for a change in state law] than defending ourselves in criminal proceedings that could be brought against us."

That not-so-veiled threat of litigation against individual members of council is what prompted Monday's vote, following by one week a tense in-meeting confrontation between Councilman Morris and Timothy Havener, of Lock Haven. Havener is president of the local chapter of Firearms Owners Against Crime, which has been lobbying local governments to remove from their books any gun restrictions that do not conform to state law, particularly those that ban firearms in local parks.

The Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors voted last week to comply with the firearms owners' request. State College Borough Council followed suit Monday, but with serious reservations.

Hahn called "arguable" the interpretation of the state's firearms law that would leave council members vulnerable to litigation or criminal prosecution. Rather, he suggested, the law calls for prosecuting those who violate its gun-carrying provisions, not for punishing municipal officials for their votes.

Nevertheless, Hahn said his opinion on carrying concealed weapons had softened, while his opinion on state pre-emption had hardened. But, after conceding that the borough's gun-restriction ordinance would appear to be unenforceable, he said voting against its repeal would be "a reasonable symbolic act to take," and if other council members were willing to vote no, he would too.

Morris and Lafer were.

In response to audience members who told of deaths in Texas and Utah they said could have been prevented had the victims been carrying concealed firearms, Lafer said she had not heard any anecdotes about the child in school who recently dropped a gun that discharged and wounded another student, or about the armed person who almost shot the man who took down the alleged assassin of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

"This is not Texas. This is not Utah," Lafer said, calling State College a relatively "small" and "safe" place to live, with little need for concealed weapons for self-protection.

But Havener and his supporters ─ making up about half the audience members and half of those who spoke for or against the resolution and gun-ban ordinance ─ disagreed.

Doug Hartman, of Halfmoon Township, said recent shooting rampages in the United States have occurred disproportionately in schools ─ not police stations ─ targeting the vulnerable and unarmed as victims. That is why, members of the Firearms Owners group insisted, that concealed guns must be allowed in parks: to allow the law-abiding to defend themselves against criminal attack.

But in the end, it was not the arguments that persuaded council to repeal the gun ban. It was the knowledge that the local law was, as Hahn suggested, symbolic and the concern that it could lead to an expenditure of time and money for the individual members to defend themselves in court.

And council vowed to lobby local representatives to the state House and Senate to work for a change that would allow municipalities to set local restrictions on carrying guns in parks and municipal buildings.

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Rich Kerstetter is managing editor of StateCollege.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SCeditorial or get news updates via Facebook at http://facebook.com/statecollegecom. Rich can be reached at [email protected] or at (814) 238-6201 Ext. 135.
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