Philly Faces New Lawsuit After Shutting Down Gun-Carry Permit Process

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November 23, 2020

Philadelphia is facing a new lawsuit over its decision to completely shutter its gun-carry permit process over COVID-19 concerns.

The Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC) filed a case in federal court accusing Philadelphia of infringing on residents' Second Amendment rights on Friday after the city closed its permit process for at least three weeks. The gun-rights group requested a temporary restraining order Monday that would require the city to open its process back up and provide remote application options to residents, but it was denied. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Nov. 30.

"We're hoping to have the court rule that the shutdown of the Gun Permit Unit amounts to a total destruction of individuals' right to bear arms outside of the home," Adam Kraut, director of legal strategy for FPC, told the Washington Free Beacon.

The shutdown comes even as other permitting offices in the city remain open. The three driver and photo license centers in Philadelphia have social distancing requirements but are open to the public, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's website.

The Philadelphia Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a message on the department's Gun Permit Unit website said the shutdown was due to "several positive COVID-19 cases and the need to quarantine as advised by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health." The message added that all appointments would be canceled through at least Dec. 7, 2020, as the permitting facility is cleaned.

Kraut said the suit doesn't question mitigation efforts against COVID-19, but rather PPD's decision to completely suspend permitting instead of implementing alternatives to the face-to-face application process. He pointed to other Pennsylvania counties like Berks and Schuylkill, which accept gun-carry permit applications online.

"There is a mechanism that they could set up ... in which they receive the applications, they process them, and then they either call the person down in person or ... send them [a certification] via mail," Kraut said. "They could certainly accept applications by mail. They could accept applications by common carrier. They could even set up a locked drop box for people to physically drop off an application. There's a whole bunch of alternatives that exist and there's no indication that they've even considered them."

Surging demand for gun-carry permits amid coronavirus restrictions has created backlogs across Pennsylvania and the country at large. But Philadelphia has come under special scrutiny for its drawn-out application process, which resulted in year-long waits even before the current shutdown.

FPC's case only adds to the city's legal concerns. This summer's backlog had already spurred a different gun-rights group, Gun Owners of America, to file a still-pending case in Pennsylvania state court. That suit accuses the city of violating a state law requiring gun-carry permits to be issued or denied within 45 days of application.

"The new closure demonstrates how fragile the PPD process is: Coronavirus exposure should have been something they expected and planned for, but instead they simply believed they could close down for three weeks," Andrew Austin, an attorney in the Gun Owners of America case, told the Free Beacon. "That's just not acceptable."

He said the only thing preventing PPD from moving to a safer application process is unwillingness on the part of city officials.

"The U.S. mail is not a vector of coronavirus infection, and everything else should be conducted remotely (there is a zero percent transmission rate on the phone or Zoom)," Austin said. "The only thing they can't do remotely is fingerprints, which isn't a requirement of the law and could be done during pick-up if they still felt it necessary."

Jude Joanis, a Temple University law school alum who was caught in the city's backlog over the summer, said he finally received his permit after his initial 2021 appointment was moved up in the wake of a September Free Beacon story that shed light on his ordeal. 

"I'm glad that I was able to get my permit so I can defend myself when necessary," Joanis told the Free Beacon.

Joanis said being able to legally carry a gun in a city where the murder rate has surged and rioting has broken out is more important than ever. But, he added, Philadelphia's unnecessary face-to-face application process is only going to lead to more shutdowns and fewer people obtaining permits—an outcome he thinks city officials ultimately prefer.

"Neighboring counties are able to process permit applications quickly and without exposing their staff to undue risk," Joanis said. "There are ways to ensure that people are able to access their constitutional right to self-defense and mitigate coronavirus spread concerns. Simplifying the permit process is a way to do that."