Philly Buckles Under Legal Pressure From Gun-Rights Activists

City to allow email applications in bid to avoid court rulings

December 9, 2020

Philadelphians will now be able to submit gun-carry permit applications over email after legal pressure forced the city to reverse a COVID-related shutdown that created a log jam for residents.

Second Amendment advocates filed lawsuits in state and federal courts after the city delayed applications far beyond the 45-day window required by state law. Spokesmen for Gun Owners of America, which filed the state lawsuit, and the Firearms Policy Coalition, which filed the federal challenge, said the city acted out of fear of losing in both cases. Adam Kraut, FPC's director of legal strategy, said the city likely doesn't want its case to move up the federal docket and risk setting a precedent that could affect how localities handle gun-carry applications. He said the legal landscape changed in the wake of the Supreme Court's November decision to grant emergency relief to churches and synagogues that challenged some of New York's COVID restrictions.

"It's hard to imagine the Philadelphia defendants not running a new risk analysis after the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo order," Kraut told the Washington Free Beacon. "Anyone in their position would have to be concerned about how the Court would view their regulatory scheme."

Neither the Philadelphia Police Department nor the office of Mayor Jim Kenney (D.) responded to requests for comment.

Jurisdictions with strict gun laws have attempted to sidestep review at the Supreme Court numerous times in recent years. Washington, D.C., declined to appeal when its restrictive gun-carry permit law was struck down in 2017 out of concern the Supreme Court would uphold the ruling. New York City also reversed course on defending a law that restricted the transport of legally owned guns. The Supreme Court declined to rule on the merits of the policy after the city abandoned it altogether.

Andrew Austin, who represented GOA in its state suit, told the Free Beacon the city opened up email applications because it was struggling to meet a self-imposed deadline for reopening in-person applications it had given to the court. He said the city's lawyers could see the writing on the wall.

"They were going to lose," Austin said. "I think what they wanted to do was just avoid [the judge] entering a judgment for GOA."

On Monday, police announced the office would reopen, ending a two-week shutdown of operations at the Gun Permit Unit. It said all previously scheduled in-person appointments would be canceled and the office would instead operate by email only—an option requested by gun-rights activists—"until further notice."

The switch to email processing, which a number of other counties in the state are also using, comes after many Philadelphians were left scrambling to get application appointments at the height of rioting in the city this summer. Several residents told the Free Beacon of busy phone lines at the permit unit. Others were told they would have to wait a year for an appointment.

"I'm not sure the city is actually trying to stomp on my rights—they may just be grossly incompetent," James Tordella, a medical supply salesman living in the city, said at the time.

After the Free Beacon published its report on the backlogs, some of those cited in the story had their appointments moved up and have since successfully obtained their gun-carry permit. The Monday announcement may result in more legally qualified Philadelphians receiving their gun-carry permits faster as lingering uncertainty from the pandemic and civil unrest heighten Americans' desires to defend themselves.

Despite the new changes, gun-rights activists said they will continue to monitor the city's permit process. Kraut said the FPC federal case will continue forward for the time being and Austin said he is looking to make sure the city doesn't find a new way to try and circumvent state law.

"Instead of making people wait to apply, they may now decide that maybe they can't comply in 45 days, which, again, the law is against," Austin said. "But it is Philadelphia, so they may try to do things that are wrong."