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Judge won't prohibit state database of handgun purchases

Thursday, January 25, 2001

By Peter Jackson, The Associated Press

HARRISBURG -- A Commonwealth Court judge has refused to bar the Pennsylvania State Police from keeping records of handgun purchases in the state.

Gun owners and sportsmen from southwestern and eastern Pennsylvania sued over the issue, maintaining that the computer database constitutes an illegal registry of firearms ownership. They asked Judge James R. Kelley at a hearing in Harrisburg last week to issue an order requiring the destruction of the database.

In rejecting the request yesterday, Kelley said Allegheny Sportsmen's League, the Lehigh Valley Firearms Coalition and two individual plaintiffs failed to prove that the requested court order was necessary to prevent "immediate and irreparable harm."

In fact, he said the harm resulting from such an order would be greater because the database serves "legitimate law-enforcement purposes" and could not be replicated if it were destroyed.

Jon Pushinsky, the lawyer who represents the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the ruling, because the legal standard for obtaining a preliminary injunction is difficult to meet.

But "I did not see anything (in the rulings) that discourages us in any way" from pursuing a permanent injunction based on the merits of the case, he said, noting that he had not discussed the ruling with his clients. "That was always our intent, to proceed for the long haul."

The state has kept records of handgun purchases since 1931, and it has been a state police responsibility since 1943, according to testimony at the hearing.

About 250,000 handguns are sold in the state each year, and information from the purchase forms is shared with state police. That information, as well as criminal history data from other sources, and the database is shared with local police throughout the state for use in criminal investigations.

State police maintained that the record of handgun sales does not constitute a registry, which Kelley said is not defined in the law that outlaws firearms registries, because it excludes purchases of rifles and shotguns. It also excludes handguns given as gifts within families or brought into the state by new residents.

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