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Gun Laws and Acts/Threats of Violence: Understand the Laws Behind the Stories Making Headlines

The headlines are horrific and unfortunately incidents such as the mass shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin seem to be on the rise.

While we hear opinions on either side of the debates about gun control and free speech when posting on web sites, it’s essential that we know some of the background and the laws and regulations behind the stories making news.

Purchasing Firearms Through the Internet:

We’ve heard that many of the suspected shooters obtain their weapons legally through internet sales. Some basic info:

Requirements for Firearm Registration:

In Pennsylvania – none. Actually the only record pertaining to the firearm is a sales record if it is sold in Pennsylvania. If the gun is brought into the state there is no requirement.

Carrying a Firearm:

In Pennsylvania you DO NOT need a permit to carry a weapon (called an open carry). You only need a permit if you are concealing the weapon or carrying it in a car. To carry a concealed weapon you must submit an application with the local Sheriff’s office, where they will do a background check and then either approve or deny the application within 45 days. Pennsylvania assumes that you will be able to carry a concealed weapon, so the burden is then placed on the Sheriff’s office to show that there is some reason you should not.

Restrictions on Having a Firearm:

Pennsylvania as well as Federal Law does prohibit certain people from possessing firearms. If you are a convicted felon, have a domestic violence conviction (even if it’s a misdemeanor), or an active Protection From Abuse Order, or have been involuntarily committed at any point, you will not be able to pass Pennsylvania’s instant background check when purchasing a weapon. Interestingly enough, seeking mental health counseling, regular treatment from a psychologist, etc. does NOT prevent you from obtaining a gun. Also keep in mind that according to the Pennsylvania State Police, approximately 60% of people applying to purchase a gun are approved within minutes.

Use of Force in Self-Defense or Defense of Others

The shooting in Florida of an unarmed teenager raises the question of when you are able to use deadly force to protect yourself, or whether you have a duty to retreat.  Pennsylvania passed a “Stand Your Ground” law in 2011. It basically states that you have the right to use deadly force if you believe such force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury. While the law started out similar to the law in Florida, it has three exceptions: (1) you can not use deadly force against a police officer; (2) you are not entitled to use deadly force if you possess a firearm illegally, and (3) you can not use the deadly force defense if you are engaged in illegal activity at the time.

Internet Posting Threats of Violence/Hate Speech 

Again, we’ve heard many stories about how suspects in crimes of violence have either been members of groups that advocate violence against certain groups, or they themselves blog or post about these opinions as well.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech through the First Amendment. While it may seem hard to believe, this protection also extends to what is commonly known as hate speech – statements which most people would find offensive and outrageous – even those which  disparage a person or a group on the basis of some characteristic such as race, color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or other characteristic.

Based on Supreme Court law, the speech is only illegal if there is an IMMEDIATE threat of violence and the violence is LIKELY to come from the speech. So while inciting a mob to attack someone in their midst IS prohibited, making statements that stir up racial hatred or bigotry is not.

Specific statements or threats of violence against a particular person usually are not protected speech. Pennsylvania has a specific statute prohibiting terroristic threats – statements made whereby the person threatens to commit any crime of violence to terrorize someone else, threaten to evacuate a public facility or place, or cause a disruption in a public place.


As always, for any questions please contact the Allegheny County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service at 412-261-5555 or visit PittsburghLawyerFinder.org