The Commonwealth Court recently found that a Stroud Township ordinance prohibiting the unauthorized discharge of firearms in the Township did not pass constitutional muster. The constitutionality of the ordinance was challenged by a Township resident who had submitted a permit application for a proposed shooting range on his property that was denied by the Township zoning officer. The resident’s property was located in the Township’s R-1 Low Density Residential Zoning District. The ordinance in question permitted the discharging of firearms at shooting ranges but only at locations where the use is permitted by the Township’s zoning ordinance. The zoning ordinance permits shooting ranges in two of the Township’s zoning districts but not in the R-1 District. The ordinance also requires a minimum lot size of five acres for a shooting range. Accordingly, anyone proposing a shooting range in the Township must have a property that satisfies the minimum lot size requirement and is located in one of the two zoning districts where the use is permitted.
The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the Township and the appeal to the Commonwealth Court followed. The Commonwealth Court reversed the lower court’s decision. In doing so, it identified the two-step process that courts must follow when determining whether an ordinance infringes on the rights granted under the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. First, the court must determine whether the ordinance imposes a burden on conduct that is protected by the Second Amendment. If it does, then the court must determine the level of judicial scrutiny to apply and whether the government met its burden of justifying the restriction.
The Commonwealth Court stated that the Second Amendment not only protects an individual’s general right to keep and bear arms but also the related right to “acquire and maintain proficiency in firearm use.” Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court found that the ordinance imposed limitations on the ability of individuals to maintain their proficiency through target practice at a shooting range which is conduct protected by the Second Amendment.
The Commonwealth Court then applied an intermediate level of judicial scrutiny which required that the Township have a “significant, substantial or important interest” for the ordinance and that the ordinance must not restrict more conduct than is reasonably necessary. The Township argued that the areas of the Township located in the two zoning districts where shooting ranges are permitted are sufficient for a resident to construct a shooting range a short distance from their home. The Township also argued that there are compelling public safety reasons for limiting shooting ranges to certain areas of the Township. The Commonwealth Court recognized that the Township’s concerns are important but found that the Township did not justify limiting shooting ranges to just two zoning districts and thereby prohibiting the use everywhere else in the Township.
The Commonwealth Court did clarify that the rights protected by the Second Amendment are not unlimited and do not entitle every person to have a shooting range on his or her own property. This leaves the door open for municipalities to regulate shooting ranges and address public health, safety and welfare concerns through restrictions that do not regulate the use more than is reasonably necessary. Examples provided by the Commonwealth Court of reasonable restrictions that might pass constitutional muster include minimum lot size requirements, setback requirements and safety and design requirements.
Please feel free to contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group for assistance with any land use or development issues and/or if you have any questions regarding this post.