When Decisions Matter.


The PA Supreme Court targets firearm regulations by municipalities

On February 21, 2024, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its ruling in Barris v. Stroud Township, overturning the decision of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. In Barris, Stroud Township passed an ordinance that made it “unlawful to fire or discharge any firearm within the Township unless one of six exceptions applied.” A potential penalty under the ordinance was confiscation of firearms used in violating the ordinance.  One of the exceptions permitted discharging firearms on indoor or outdoor shooting ranges. However, the Township’s zoning ordinance limited shooting ranges to two specified zoning districts: the open space district and the recreational district. The zoning ordinance also required that in order to use a property as a shooting range, the parcel must be a minimum of five acres with a minimum lot width of 250 feet, there must be a setback of 50 feet from public roads and property boundaries, and maximum lot coverage is limited to twenty percent. Outdoor ranges also needed to be a minimum of 150 yards away from any adjacent occupied structure. Taken together, the practical effect of the discharge ordinance and the zoning ordinance meant that 35% of all the land in the Township was suitable for the development of indoor or outdoor shooting ranges.

Mr. Barris lives in the 65% of the Township that does not allow outdoor gun ranges. The question before the Court was whether “an ordinance that limits target shooting to two non-residential zoning districts, and thus does not provide for shooting ranges at all private residences, is facially unconstitutional” under the Second Amendment.   The Court conducted the two-step Bruen analysis that the United States Supreme Court has adopted to determine the constitutionality of firearm regulations and a majority of the Court held that “the Second Amendment’s plain text covers Barris’s conduct based on the specific terms of the discharge ordinance…which permits the confiscation of lawfully owned arms,” hence meeting the first prong of the test.  However, the Court went on to further hold that “the government met its burden to justify the discharge ordinance’s shooting range exception by showing it is consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,” thus Mr. Barris’s conduct fell outside of the Second Amendment’s protections.

What does this all mean for municipalities? It depends. The Court did not decree a bright line rule to guide decisionmakers, and instead delved into a fact-specific inquiry. It found that under these facts, the discharge ordinance was “exactly the type of sensible firearm regulations the Second Amendment permits.” Several questions remain though: would Second Amendment protections be triggered if the penalty for violating the ordinance did not include confiscation of firearms? What if only 20% of the township was zoned for indoor or outdoor shooting ranges? Would a similar challenge fail under the Pennsylvania Constitution? The case was remanded on other grounds, so there is the potential that it could come back to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for another ruling.  Furthermore, this decision is just one state’s application of the Second Amendment.  The Federal Circuit courts are split on how the two-part test from Bruen should be applied in firearm cases. It is only a matter of time until the United States Supreme Court weighs in again on the applicability of the Second Amendment to local firearm regulations. While the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has weighed in on these facts, there is still significant uncertainty in this area of law, and a cautious course is most likely the safest path.

Municipalities interested in passing a firearm discharge ordinance or regulating shooting ranges must understand the interplay between the proposed discharge ordinance and their zoning ordinance, and what that looks like on land use in their community. Stock and Leader has a team of municipal attorneys that are prepared to support your municipality on this issue and any other zoning/ordinance questions.

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