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Group sues state police on gun files

Thursday, December 14, 2000

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

An ongoing dispute over whether Pennsylvania State Police can keep information on file about gun owners has landed in the courts.

Yesterday, the Allegheny Sportsmen's League filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg contending that state police are violating state law by not destroying applications and records that individuals must produce to buy handguns in Pennsylvania.

The lawsuit contends that state police have retained handgun sales database records for nearly 70 years, even though recent amendments to the state Uniform Firearms Act require the information to be destroyed because it constitutes a "handgun registry."

The sportsmen's league considers the state police database "to be prohibited by state law and as a threat to the right of their individual members to keep and bear arms," according to the lawsuit.

"Their position is that the government has no more business keeping a record concerning the gun sales than keeping records concerning where someone worships, how often or how many printing presses you have," said Jon Pushinsky, the lawyer representing the sportsmen's league.

Named as defendants are Gov. Tom Ridge, state police Commissioner Paul Evanko and the state police.

Jack Lewis, state police spokesman, said he had not seen the lawsuit but was familiar with the issue.

"Our position is that the gun sales database is not in violation of state law," Lewis said.

The sportsmen's league is a nonprofit Allegheny County corporation representing 46 local organizations that are committed to advancing the interests of firearms owners in the county.

Its lawsuit names several individual members who have bought handguns in recent years and were required to give licensed Pennsylvania handgun dealers basic information including their names, addresses and Social Security numbers.

That information is forwarded to state police, who conduct a background check to determine if the individual has a criminal history, juvenile delinquency or mental health problems.

The lawsuit contends that state police are required by law to destroy the application and record-of-sale forms within 72 hours after completing the background check but have failed to do so.

Instead, state police maintain a database of all legal handgun sales in Pennsylvania. The database includes information about transactions back to 1933.

On Aug. 7, Kim Stolfer of McDonald, a vice chairman of the sportsmen's league legislative committee, wrote a letter to Evanko demanding that references to him be removed from state police files. Other plaintiffs did the same thing, the lawsuit said, but Evanko did not comply with their requests.

The sportsmen's league sued Ridge because he hasn't done anything to stop the practice.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that state police are in violation of the prohibition against a state firearms ownership registry and order destruction of the records.

When state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, questioned the legality of the database earlier this year, Evanko sent him a letter contending that the information collected does not constitute a "gun registry" and does not violate the Uniform Firearms Act.

State police maintain they have the authority to collect and classify information that could be useful in crime detection and identification and apprehension of criminals.

"The application/record-of-sale file is used daily by law enforcement officers throughout Pennsylvania to solve crimes involving the use of handguns," Evanko wrote.

"For the [state police] to destroy this 67-year-old file ... would not only make crime solving in the commonwealth more difficult, but would also jeopardize the lives and safety of citizens and police officers," Evanko wrote.

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