Legislation is, at its best, an art. It can also be, at something close to its worst, an outright scam. The Pennsylvania General Assembly is not always known for its artistic prowess. Take, for example, the Pennsylvania Gut and Switch, a legislative technique — if that’s the word for it — wherein an “amendment” is introduced to some old bill that, in fact, rewrites the whole thing into something else that is then shunted through the General Assembly like a greased potato. And greasy it is: This little loophole allowed the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass, almost literally overnight, Act 71 — a bill that began as an obscure horse-racing law and became, out of nowhere, a massive bill legalizing casino gambling in Pennsylvania. The Gut and Switch was also used by our legislators to give themselves salary increases in 2005, in a scandal known as the “midnight pay raise.”
It was hauled out again this week when the House Judiciary Committee took up an amendment in a Tuesday hearing that, in effect, replaced all the language of Senate Bill 273 — a gun bill that had been scrapped in favor of another, nearly identical one from the state House — with new language that morphed it into a bill that forces municipalities to reimburse the legal costs of any challenge to gun laws it passes that is either overturned or withdrawn before a judge rules.
The backdrop to this bill is a series of laws passed in some 30 cities and towns across Pennsylvania requiring the timely reporting of lost and stolen handguns. While state law, which has been heavily influenced by the powerful NRA lobby, generally preempts local ordinance when it comes to guns (several ordinances proposed in Philadelphia did not survive legal challenges), the “lost and stolen” laws have withstood challenges in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia all the way up to the state Supreme Court.
Supporters argue that once a handgun is lost or stolen, it is no longer in “lawful use” and therefore not covered by state pre-emption. What Tuesday’s amendment would do, says Max Nacheman of the anti-gun-violence group CeaseFire PA, is open the door for endless NRA lawsuits against these still-legal ordinances. Municipalities, he argues, have limited funds to fight such suits. Should they simply withdraw the ordinance, they’d be forced to pay untold sums to the “victims” of lost-and-stolen regulations.
“Thirty towns and cities have passed these regulations,” Nacheman says. “The towns will face the choice to drive themselves bankrupt to defend a local ordinance the solicitors do not believe and the courts have not declared improper.”
State Rep. Darryl Metcalf, generally a leader of the charge to the right of the right in the state legislature, had proposed even harsher penalties in a bill, HB 1523, that has not so far been passed.
Tuesday’s Gut and Switch represented, in effect, another try, minus public debate. The amendment almost entirely rewriting the defunct bill was swiftly passed through the House Judiciary Committee and to the floor for a vote (as of press time, no vote has taken place). An aide to state Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, the minority chair of the committee, acknowledged that the older bill was simply a “vehicle” for the new amendment that rewrote it wholesale, but denied that anything shady had taken place, noting that there had been “private” agreement among leadership over the amendment and that it was a “softer” version of Metcalf’s bill.
That does little to satisfy the opponents of the last-second legislative move. “Oh, it’s softer,” Nacheman agreed — “slightly softer than a terrible, terrible law.”
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