Pennsylvania gun law vague on surrender orders

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – The Uniform Firearms Act lays out who cannot legally own a gun in Pennsylvania, but does it address mental health?

“There are absolutely laws in place that address mental health and guns,” attorney Michael Giaramita said.

It is called Section 302, or an involuntary commitment.

“Once that physician signs off on that certification, that person under Pennsylvania law will be prohibited from possessing or carrying firearms for life,” Giaramita said.

Under the law, if that person already has guns, they must turn them over in 60 days.

“Many times, people who have been treated under Section 302 here in Pennsylvania aren’t even provided notice that they are not to possess firearms under Pennsylvania law,” said Giaramita.

The law does require state police and sheriff offices to be notified.

“The Pennsylvania State Police for the purpose of conducting their background checks will get notice and the county sheriff’s department for the purposes of revoking a carry and conceal permit will also get notified,” Dauphin County Deputy District Attorney Johnny Baer said.

While those agencies are notified when someone is involuntarily committed, the law does not require any agency to make sure the person has turned over their guns.

“That is kind of the shortcoming in the law right now,” Baer said. “It is unclear who is to do what in terms of enforcing those 60 days.”

The Cumberland County Sheriffs Office served almost 500 protection from abuse orders last year, and some of those orders required people to relinquish their guns. But even when the law requires surrender, there can be roadblocks.

“If it’s not in plain view, if they don’t admit to it, we don’t have the right to go look. Everybody has a Fourth Amendment right, and I am not going to violate that,” said Sgt. Bryan Ward of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department.

There are more than 40 violations that can prohibit a person from possessing a gun in Pennsylvania. If law enforcement had to check on every case, it would become overwhelming.

“I don’t know how we would even do it. With the manpower and the workload and the population in the county, I don’t know how it would occur,” Ward said.

“If the Legislature were to make a change that directs a sheriff’s department or state police, for example, to follow up on the 60 days, I am sure those agencies would find a way to do that,” Baer said. “That may mean adding staff and that may cost money, but at the moment it would be a logistical impossibility to do that.”

While laws may be written in black and white, there are gray areas.

“It is hard to legislate human behavior and human decisions,” Ward said.

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