Community members attend a memorial for Tiffany Fletcher, the 41-year-old rec center employee killed at work by crossfire Credit: Emily Rizzo / WHYY

After Philadelphia recreation employee Tiffany Fletcher was shot and killed at work last month, Mayor Jim Kenney banned guns at city pools and rec centers.

Less than a week later, his rule was thrown out by a Philadelphia court.

The judge who issued the decision seemed to do so begrudgingly. In his opinion, Judge Joshua Roberts wrote he was “duty-bound to uphold the law” — referencing Pennsylvania’s Uniform Firearms Act, which says Pa. municipalities can’t enact their own gun regulations.

Roberts strongly suggested the state Supreme Court should revisit that law. He quoted another Pa. judge, Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, who wrote earlier this year that “the overwhelming blight of gun violence occurring in the city of Philadelphia… call[s] for a recognition that local conditions may well justify more severe restrictions than are necessary statewide.”

The decision tossing the park firearms ban was a victory for the organization that challenged the mayor’s order: Gun Owners of America.

“All of the anti-gun municipalities across the commonwealth need to understand the message from this case,” Val Finnell, GOA’s Pennsylvania director, said in a statement that contained a not-so-veiled threat. “Gun Owners of America will not tolerate illegal bans, prohibitions, or restrictions on the Second Amendment in violation of Pennsylvania law. We stopped Mayor Kenney in less than a week, and we will do the same to you.”

The mayor is disappointed in the ruling and plans to file post-trial motions, spokesperson Sarah Peterson told Billy Penn. “We will continue to fight for sensible measures such as those laid out in this executive order as we do everything we can to protect the safety of families and children that use our recreational facilities and centers,” she said.

Gun Owners of America recently also took aim at legislative attempts to limit and regulate ghost guns in the city. GOA hasn’t yet been successful in court in that case, but it’s appealing the decision.

So who is this group fighting the city’s efforts to stiffen gun restrictions? And do they have any real stake in Philadelphia?

A ‘no compromise’ group that calls the NRA ‘weak’

Gun Owners of America describes itself as the “no compromise gun lobby.” The organization was founded in 1976 by California state Sen. H.L. Richardson.

A 501(c)(4) nonprofit, the national organization is now based in Virginia. It has a Pennsylvania arm, directed by Finnell, who lives in York, Pa.

GOA had a total annual revenue of $6.2 million in 2020, according to the most recent tax records published by ProPublica. It has called the National Rifle Association “weak” on Second Amendment advocacy, and frequently gives harsher “grades” than the NRA, including for Pennsylvania legislative candidates.

In Pennsylvania, GOA has more than 1,000 “members and supporters,” according to Finnell. (Billy Penn could not independently confirm this number.) Some of those members have been listed as plaintiffs in the suits GOA has filed here.

Finnell said his organization believes Pennsylvania’s preemption law — the statute that keeps Philadelphia from making its own gun restrictions — should be made even stronger. “The problem of Philadelphia is not guns,” he asserted. “It’s a crime prosecution problem.”

An anti-violence rally in March 2021 at Philadelphia City Hall Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Suing to keep ghost guns legal

GOA sued Philadelphia in 2021 over a city ordinance that put new restrictions on 3-D printed guns and gun parts, often referred to as “ghost guns,” alleging Pa.’s Uniform Firearms Act preempted this regulation.

Roberts — the same judge who ruled against the city on the rec center ban — posted a Sept. 12 decision saying the state law doesn’t regulate the creation of components and parts, even if ultimately used to make a gun.

“The UFA specifically regulates only four defined specific acts or actions: ownership, possession, transfer and transportation,” Roberts wrote. “But there is no clear statement on the face of the UFA that the legislature intended for the UFA to preempt the entire field of firearm regulation.”

GOA has appealed the case to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

The organization has also sued the city multiple times over its licensing process, but ended up dropping both.

In 2020, GOA sued because the city was only processing licenses to carry applications by appointment, and appointments were booked months or sometimes a year out. In 2021, GOA sued again because the licensing process was taking too long. A lawyer for the org said it dropped each of the two cases after the city changed its processes — and that GOA considers both cases “a big win.”

Who does GOA back politically in Pa.?

GOA Pennsylvania grades state legislators on voting and advocacy records, and has endorsed a slate of candidates in the upcoming midterm elections for statewide executive and legislative offices. Most are Republicans, along with a couple of Libertarian candidates.

One of GOA’s endorsees is Pa. gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano.

When Mastriano in June compared U.S. gun control to Nazi Germany, GOA Pennsylvania tweeted his remarks were “spot on.”

Last weekend, GOA held a “Freedom Festival” in Warminster, Bucks County, with Mastriano and other endorsed candidates as featured speakers. The event included a gun giveaway, alarming some nearby residents.

The national organization has given $42.5k to Republican candidates for federal office this year, according to Open Secrets’ analysis of campaign finance records, and gave $173.5k to Republican candidates in 2020, including $5k each to Scott Perry and Sean Parnell of Pa. That’s way less than the NRA, which directly donated over $750k and spent millions in lobbying and advocacy.

In April, GOA and several other gun rights groups called on the state legislature to investigate Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro for cooperating with a news report on ghost guns. Their allegations were reportedly based on the assumption that Shapiro allowed the reporter to keep a firearm and take it back to New York, but Shapiro said his office kept the gun and only agents could access it.

Mayor Jim Kenney signs an executive order banning guns at all city-owned recreation facilities Credit: Tom MacDonald / WHYY

What was Kenney’s rec center order about?

The rule that just got blocked in Philly was an executive order put in place Sept. 27 by Kenney, saying guns and other weapons were no longer allowed at all city-owned recreation facilities. It applied to indoor and outdoor properties, but not “passive park space” like trails.

The rule came after recreation department Tiffany Fletcher was killed in the crossfire during a shootout at Mill Creek Playground in September. There have been more than 300 incidents of weapons violence at Philadelphia recreational facilities since 2019, according to the city.

The city’s lawyers argued in court that Philadelphia could enforce this rule as the property owner, not as a police power.

People in violation of the rule would be asked to leave the recreation facility, and if they refused they would face a trespassing charge, not a weapons charge. City lawyers noted private companies have made similar rules, such as CVS banning guns from its stores.

Suing to carry guns at Marconi Plaza

The Gun Owners of America immediately sued Kenney over the executive order.

The organization was joined by three Philadelphia residents — Terrence Ledwell, John Sandefur and Laura Leonard-McBride — as well as Delaware County resident Ed McBride, who testified in court that he visits Marconi Plaza frequently with his grandchild and wants to be able to continue doing so while carrying this firearm.

All four individuals have a license to carry in Pennsylvania, court filings said, and want to be able to continue carrying their guns at city-owned recreational facilities.

A group of armed citizens guarded the Marconi Park Columbus statue on June 13 because they believed protestors were on their way to destroy it Credit: RYAN COLLERD

What else is happening with Philadelphia gun laws in the courts?

The City of Philadelphia, along with CeaseFirePA and a group of Philadelphians whose lives have been affected by gun violence, sued the state in 2020, seeking the ability to make its own gun laws. That case is currently active in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Recent rulings on the preemption issue have been guided by a 1996 decision known as Ortiz v. Commonwealth. In that case, Philly and Pittsburgh were trying to ban certain assault weapons, but the Pa. Supreme Court said the Uniform Firearms Act preempted those ordinances.

The case has been called into question in recent years.

“When a child cannot leave his home to walk to the corner of his street without risking the prospect of being caught in a crossfire, we are denying him the most fundamental right, that of life and liberty,” Commonwealth Court Judge Leadbetter wrote earlier this year, “and so I would urge our Supreme Court to reconsider the breadth of the Ortiz doctrine and allow for local restrictions narrowly tailored to local necessities.”