On January 8, 2002, eight months after hearing the Pennsylvania State Police's motion for Preliminary Objections, Commonwealth Court rendered its decision in the ACSL's lawsuit against the Pennsylvania State Police for keeping a registry of firearms owners. To our dismay, the court sided with the Pennsylvania State Police that state law does not prohibit the PSP from keeping a record of sale database because the record of sale database does not contain all firearms owned by gun owners in Pennsylvania, thus it does not constitute a registry of firearm ownership. The Allegheny County Sportsmen's League immediately voted to appeal the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
It has been said that the Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court is THE Commonwealth's court. Well it has sure been proven this week with the Court deciding in favor of the Pennsylvania State Police. The court decided, 5-2, that the record of sales database, which contains the name, addresses, type of handgun, and the serial number of the firearm is not a "registry of firearm owners. However, the decent written by Judge Friedman was so strong, that the ACSL voted unanimously to appeal the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Voting to continue the practice of the State Police keeping extensive records on law abiding gun owners were; Judges James T. Doyle, James Gardner Colins, Doris A. Smith, James R. Kelley and Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter.
Voting for law abiding gun owners to be free from recording keeping by the government were Dan Pellegrenni and Rochelle Friedman.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Michael J. Slavonic, Jr., Chairman of the ACSL's Legislative Committee responded, "We think the dissent is extremely strong, and we believe the case merits further consideration."
The decision by the majority hinged narrowly on two words. The word "any" and "registry". It was decided on whether the record of sales database was a "registry of firearm ownership", and whether section 6111.4 prohibited "any" or "partial" registry of firearms owners. The majority made their decision by splitting hairs. They wrote that "The term 'registry', by it plain definition, ordinarily refers to an official record. While we agree that the database maintained by the Commonwealth is a 'registry' of sorts, there are no allegations that the Commonwealth maintains a registry of firearm ownership." The ACSL's attorney did argue that the record of sales database contains the names and addresses of firearms ownership. The majority ignored that argument.
They then when on to write "The distinction lies not in the term 'registry', as urged by Petitioners, but with what is being registered. A 'registry of firearm ownership', by plain definition, would maintain a record of ownership, whereas a registry or database of handgun sales would maintain a record of sale. While the distinction may seem slight, a registry of ownership would necessarily encompass a registration of all firearms, including long guns, firearms owned by Pennsylvanians not purchased in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, as well as information on transfers of handguns to spouses, children, and grandchildren, whereas the database of handgun sales maintained by the Commonwealth contains only information on the sale of handgunsin the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."
In other words, they ruled that the record of sales database not a complete registry, but 'only' a partial registry. While the majority ruled that a registry must encompass a registration of all firearms, they nevertheless agreed that 6111.4 did prohibit a registry of long guns, which is a partial registry. The Majority adopted the PSP's argument, which is to deny and obfuscate the extent to which information is kept in their computers on law-abiding citizens' firearms purchases. Ignoring what information is contained in each record of the record of sale database goes to the heart of the problems with the majority's interpretation.
The problem with their interpretation is that they ignored what information was contained in each record of the record of sale database. It clearly contains information on the owner of the firearms, and thus is a registry of firearms ownership. Current Pennsylvania law, while exempting spouses, children and grandchildren, does require the recording of firearm transfers between other individuals through a dealer, and thus the record of sales database is appended each time a handgun is transferred between individuals. However, we did not have an opportunity to make that argument.
In her dissenting opinion Judge Friedman strongly disagreed with the majority. She challenged the majority on their definition of a "registry of firearm ownership". Friedman wrote, "First, section 6111.4 of the Firearms Act prohibits "any" registry, and a partial registry of firearm ownership is still a registry of firearms ownership. By ignoring the word "any" in its analysis of section 6111.4, the majority has transformed the statutory phrase "any registry of firearm ownership" into "a complete registry of firearm ownership" I cannot accept such a rewriting of the statute."
Friedman when on to write, "Second, section 6111(b)(1.1)(v) of the Firearms Act, 18 Pa. C.S. 6111(b)(1.1)(v), states that section 6111.4 precludes an ownership registry for long guns. An ownership registry for long guns would be a partial ownership registry. Thus, the Statute itself makes clear that section 6111.4 does not permit a partial ownership registry. The majority does not address the interpretation of section 6111.4 set forth in section 6111(b)(1.1)(v)."
The difference between the two opinions is so slight that it warrants an appeal. This case comes down to one single issue, and that is whether or not the record of sales database constitutes a "registry of firearms ownership" as prohibited by section 6111.4. The ACSL believes, based on the dissenting opinion, that we can make the argument before the Supreme Court, that the majority erred in their interpretation of the statute. If the Supreme Court will allow us to proceed to the next phase we can prove that the record of sales database is registry of firearms ownership. We will also prove that the current list of law abiding gun owners is not a necessary and effective tool to prevent criminal activity with firearms.
The ACSL believes that it is absolutely necessary to appeal this decision for two reasons. First, had the court sat three judges as is normal, and two of those three judges included Pellegreni and Friedman, we would have won. Second, stopping now would give the impression that the court was correct in its interpretation, and that the record of sales database does not constitute a registry of firearms ownership. Also we would have no argument before the legislature if we asked them to change the law.