Hot Zones: Where a Pennsylvania LAGO Can and Cannot Carry a Firearm
If you have a Pennsylvania License to Carry Firearms, you can legally carry a firearm on your person and in your car in every city in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia. However, there are certain specific locations in which carrying a firearm is prohibited in Pennsylvania, even if you are licensed to carry firearms. This can get confusing, because one must account not only for state law, but federal law as well. You might not be aware of some places which are off limits. You might also be surprised by a few places which are not off limits. Regardless of your previous thoughts, it is important to distinguish law from flaw and stay away from certain “hot zones.” It is in this area that Pennsylvania Law Abiding Gun Owners (LAGOs) can turn into accidental criminals, so we wanted to highlight the main areas that are of concern. Of course, no post can cover every prohibited place. We hit the major ones here.
Vehicles and Guns
Pennsylvania takes a minority approach. Please consider reading Pennsylvania Law About Guns and Vehicles: Proceed with Caution
18 Pa.C.S. § 912. Possession of weapon on school property and Federal Law about Schools
Schools are one of the main hot zones in which LAGOs must use extreme caution. Pennsylvania law prohibits possession of a firearm “in the buildings of, on the grounds of, or in any conveyance providing transportation to or from any elementary or secondary publicly-funded educational institution, any elementary or secondary private school licensed by the Department of Education or any elementary or secondary parochial school.” In other words, this includes all school grounds except universities.
The law provides a specific defense if “the weapon is possessed and used in conjunction with a lawful supervised school activity or course or is possessed for other lawful purpose.” What exactly qualifies under “other lawful purpose” is not entirely clear. In December of 2012, Dr. Charles King of Somerset County ―who held a valid License to Carry Firearms― was charged with possession of a weapon on school property. While picking his child up from school, Dr. King carried a concealed firearm on his person. An employee of the school noticed the firearm and contacted the police.
While the District Attorney of Somerset County, Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, faced questions about the “other lawful purpose” provision of the statute, she asserted that it did not protect Dr. King under the circumstances. Ultimately, Dr. King was accepted into the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, and the matter was not litigated. As this “other lawful purpose” exception has not been litigated, there is no authoritative interpretation of the statute, and it remains unclear as to whether holding a License to Carry Firearms constitutes another “lawful purpose.” At the very least, we know that the District Attorney in Somerset County maintains a narrow interpretation of “other lawful purpose” and believes charges are appropriate in instances such as Dr. King’s. That being considered, it is wise for LAGOs to abide by this narrow interpretation until the courts hold otherwise.
There is additionally a federal law known as the Gun-Free School Zones Act. The name says it all… or does it? This Act has undergone a great deal of scrutiny, and has been revised to comply with Constitutional standards (or so Congress believes). As of now, neither the Supreme Court nor the Third Circuit has held the law unconstitutional, so Penn LAGOs had better abide. The Act makes it a crime to knowingly possess a firearm in, or on the grounds of, or within 1,000 feet of a public, parochial or private school. However, there is an exception for those who are “licensed to do so by the State in which the school zone is located or a political subdivision of the State, and the law of the State or political subdivision requires that, before an individual obtains such a license, the law enforcement authorities of the State or political subdivision verify that the individual is qualified under law to receive the license.” Here’s the meat of the exception. If you have a valid Pennsylvania License to Carry Firearms, in theory you would be covered under this section with regard to schools in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania runs a background check before granting a License to Carry Firearms. However, this DOES NOT exempt you from the state laws which are in place. As a result, schools are still hot zones.
18 Pa.C.S.A. § 913. Possession of firearm or other dangerous weapon in court facility
“Court facilities” are another hot zone of which Penn LAGOs should be aware. Under Pennsylvania law, it is a crime to knowingly have a firearm in a court facility, or to knowingly cause a firearm to be present in a court facility. The statute additionally provides a separate offense for possession or transport of a firearm in to a courtroom with the intent that the firearm be used to commit a crime, but for Penn LAGOs, that isn’t a cause for concern.
What exactly is a court facility?
The statute indicates that it is not as broad as the entire building. The statutory definition includes various courtrooms, judge’s chambers, witness rooms, jury deliberation rooms, attorney conference rooms, prisoner holding cells, offices of court clerks, the district attorney, the sheriff and probation and parole officers, and any adjoining corridors.” What is an adjoining corridor? According to the Commonwealth Court, “[a]n adjoining corridor is a passageway that is adjacent to a court facility, i.e., a passageway that has common bounding lines with a court facility. Minich v. Cnty. of Jefferson, 869 A.2d 1141, 1143 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2005) citing Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 26-27 (1993) (internal quotations omitted). The court ultimately concluded that the first floor hallway of the courthouse in question was an adjoining corridor because it connected with the “District Court, the Prothonotary’s Office/Clerk of Courts and the Office of the Register and Recorder/ Clerk of Orphan’s Court, all of which are court facilities.” Id. At 1144.
Along with this restriction, however, the statute provides some protection for Penn LAGOs in courthouses. First, the statute mandates that courthouses post notices “conspicuously at each public entrance to each courthouse or other building containing a court facility and each court facility.” If the courthouse fails to post a compliant notice, those who enter with a firearm can only be convicted under the statute if they actually knew that they were violating the law. The statute also mandates that courthouses provide lockers or storage facilities for LAGOs to check their firearms as they enter the courthouse. If you choose to do so, you must be issued as receipt.
If at all possible, leave your firearm safely in a locked container elsewhere before entering the courthouse. If you must bring it with you, be careful when you enter a court facility. Alert the security member in a calm and polite fashion. “I have a license to carry and would like to check my firearm” will probably go over better than “Hey! I’ve got a gun!”
TSA Security Checkpoints/Airplanes
As we discussed in our recent post, Flying with Your Firearms, federal law prohibits bringing a firearm onto an airplane or through TSA security checkpoints. Pennsylvania law does not expressly prohibit licensed individuals from carrying inside airport terminals (OUTSIDE of the TSA checkpoints). Please make it a point to be 100% certain that you do not carry your firearm ―or any prohibited item― through the TSA security checkpoint. Too many LAGOs have been scrutinized for honest mistakes, so triple check your baggage for ammunition, firearm parts, or even firearms which may have ended up in a bag accidentally.
All Federal Facilities and 39 CFR 232.1(l) Conduct on postal property and 28 C.F.R. 1.218(a)(13) VA Hospitals
Under 18 U.S.C. 930, it is a federal offense to carry a firearm in a federal facility. Some point to the listed exception, “Subsection (a) shall not apply to— the lawful carrying of firearms or other dangerous weapons in a Federal facility incident to hunting or other lawful purposes” and contend that this applies to those who hold a License to Carry Firearms (or another state’s equivalent).
However, in the case of the Post Office, the Code of Federal Regulations further provides that “ no person while on postal property may carry firearms . . . except for official purposes.”
Does postal property include the parking lot? The courts are split, and there is no binding authority in Pennsylvania. So as a Penn LAGO, we recommend against bringing a firearm into the parking lot, and definitely do not bring it into the building.
One of the most frequent calls and questions we get pertains to Veterans Affairs facilities. Yes, those places are included under 18 U.S.C. 930. So you cannot carry into the VA facility. Again, what about the parking lot? The Code of Federal Regulations seems to clear that up, reading ” No person while on [Veterans Affairs] property shall carry firearms, other dangerous or deadly weapons, or explosives, either openly or concealed, except for official purposes.” 28 C.F.R. 1.218(a)(13). Considering the facts that the regulation specifically references “property” and the generally loose interpretation with regards to facilities, it’s safe to say that VA parking lots are hot zones.
A military base is also considered a federal facility. Even though a military base might not seem like a “facility,” in the eyes of the law, it is. Many people contend that if they do not enter any buildings on the base, they are not technically in a “facility.” While such an assertion may make sense linguistically, it has no basis under the law. Once you reach that gate, you must be certain that you are free of any firearms. While this post is geared toward where a Penn LAGO may carry, it’s important to point out that firearms are prohibited from military bases even if they are in the trunk, unloaded, disassembled, locked, or all of the above.
Detention Facilities, Correctional Institutions & Mental Hospitals
18 Pa.C.S. § 5122. Weapons or implements for escape.
18 Pa.C.S. § 5122. Weapons or implements for escape.
In Pennsylvania, it’s a crime to “unlawfully [introduce] within a detention facility, correctional institution or mental hospital . . . any weapon, tool, implement, or other thing which may be used for escape.” It’s also a crime to unlawfully provide these listed items to an inmate, but that shouldn’t be an issue for Penn LAGOs.
61 Pa.C.S. § 5902. Contraband Prohibited
With respect to prisons, Title 61 additionally applies, and its provisions are more stringent. Under Section 5902, it is illegal to bring any weapons into a correctional institution, any connected buildings, or on any land that Pennsylvania uses for inmates. Accordingly, prisons, jails, detention facilities, or any place that is used to process, hold, or house arrested persons or prisons is clear cut hot zone.
Back to 18 Pa.C.S. § 5122. Weapons or implements for escape.
As § 5902 doesn’t apply to mental hospitals, it’s not quite as cut and dry. Here’s the question: if you are duly licensed to carry a firearm, would doing so in a mental hospital be an “unlawful introduction?” According to the statute, “the word ‘unlawfully’ means surreptitiously or contrary to law, regulation or order of the detaining authority.” But let’s imagine that Larry the LAGO has a brother, Barry, who has recently been committed to a mental hospital. Can Larry carry when he visits Barry? One might think that merely possessing a firearm, as Larry has a License to Carry Firearms, would not be contrary to law. As the court has never interpreted the statute, we have no clarification as to its meaning. While the language may seem permeable, LAGOs are stuck with ambiguity until the court interprets it one way or the other.
The Mental Health Act also has a section which pertains to firearms. It reads: “It shall be unlawful for anyone to directly or indirectly, sell, give or furnish to any person admitted, committed or detained in a facility, any weapon or other instrument which may be used to inflict injury unless the instrument is a tool of the activity in which the person has permission to engage.” 50 Pa.C.S. § 4605. Even though the average LAGO might refrain from voluntarily handing their guns over to loved ones who may be committed, perhaps a district attorney could interpret the phrase “indirectly furnish” more loosely than you’d imagine. While Title 18 might not seem air tight because of the “unlawful” language, and the provision of Title 50 may seem even less concrete, considered as a whole, it would be wise for LAGOs to treat mental hospitals as true hot zones.
Let’s Call it a Hot Zone, Even Though it Shouldn’t Be
City Parks in Philadelphia (?)
In 2013, Philadelphia effectively banned LAGOs from carrying their firearms in city parks in Philadelphia. Through its own local regulation ―PA Phila. Code § 16-306― Philadelphia granted authority to “The Commissioner of Public Property and the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation . . . to promulgate regulations prohibiting the carrying of any firearm or deadly weapon in or around any City-owned or City-occupied facility.”
You might be curious as to whether the recent preemption legislation has any impact on this restriction. [For more about the recent preemption legislation, please see our post: Act 192 Under the Gun]. The answer is a resounding PROBABLY (we appreciate that this answer is not very helpful). Local governments simply do not have the authority to enact firearms regulations which are more restrictive than those provided by the state legislature. In fact, earlier this year a Pennsylvania court struck down an Erie ordinance which restricted carrying in city parks, calling the ordinance “erroneous and unenforceable.” Dillon v. City of Erie, 83 A.3d 467 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2014). If Act 192 survives, Philadelphia should be prepared to go to high-stakes battle with the a citizen or a membership group, as a loss or repeal after suit is filed will cost them a pretty penny.
However, while the new legislation makes it easier to sue non-compliant local governments, that will not necessarily stop these governments from enforcing their bogus rules in the meantime. While the first “offender” charged will likely have a solid case, you’d prefer to not be “that guy.” So sadly, we must recommend that Penn LAGOs stay away from city parks in Philadelphia at this time.
Cool Zones (Believe It or Not)
Let’s preface this section by clarifying something. In the following locations (within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania), if you have a valid License to Carry Firearms, you are not prohibited from carrying under Pennsylvania law or any federal law. HOWEVER, just because it is legal to carry, doesn’t always make it a good idea to carry in every situation. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Use discretion before you carry in locations which may cause you a hassle. Be objective, and see the potential outcomes as they are, regardless of how they “ought to be.”
This section doesn’t include EVERY place in which you can carry, because that could take forever. These are just some notable places which people commonly misconstrue as hot zones.
This may surprise you, but in Pennsylvania, there is no law prohibiting licensed LAGOs from carrying a firearm in a bank. Contrary to internet balderdash, it is not prohibited by federal law either. Many banks have their own internal policies which aim to prohibit firearm possession on the premises. While their “No Guns” sign does not have the force of law in Pennsylvania, as it is private property, you must leave if they ask you to. If a misguided employee or customer contacts the police when you have done nothing but lawfully enter the building with a firearm, lawyer up, shut up, and rest knowing that the law is on your side.
Bars & Restaurants that Serve Alcohol
Perhaps to your surprise, Pennsylvania law does not prohibit an individual from carrying a firearm in a bar or establishment which sells liquor for consumption on the premises. In fact, in Pennsylvania it is not even illegal to drink alcohol while lawfully carrying a firearm. It is important to note the peculiarity of this Pennsylvania’s approach, because it is the minority approach. Many states, even those with minimal gun control laws, prohibit carrying firearms in bars, restaurants which serve alcohol, or at the very least, prohibit those who are carrying from drinking alcohol themselves. Not so in Pennsylvania. However, as we said earlier, just because something is legal, doesn’t automatically make it a good idea. Penn LAGOs are encouraged to exercise extreme caution and be responsible with your firearm around alcohol.
Churches & Places of Religious Worship
In Pennsylvania, LAGOs can legally possess a firearm in church the same way you could anywhere else. Of course, this isn’t limited to churches of a particular religion or denomination, so you can lawfully carry in any place of religious worship. Like anywhere else, use caution. Other than that, go ahead and see how many rights you can exercise at once: peaceably assemble, worship freely, speak your mind, and bear your arms…all while the government is not quartering soldiers in your home.
Photo retrieved from http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/findapark/ridleycreek/.
National Parks & State Parks
As of fairly recently (2008), federal law provides that “a person may possess, carry, and transport concealed, loaded, and operable firearms within a national park area in accordance with the laws of the state in which the national park area, or that portion thereof, is located, except as otherwise prohibited by applicable Federal law.” Accordingly, Penn LAGOs who hold a valid Pennsylvania License to Carry Firearms may do so in national parks in Pennsylvania. Keep in mind that buildings on a national park are still considered “federal facilities” and are in turn subject to 18 U.S.C. 930. Keep your firearms out of any buildings on the national park, particularly those where employees are present. It is acceptable to carry in restrooms, since no employees will be stationed there.
Pennsylvania additionally allows licensed Penn LAGOs to carry in state parks. Pennsylvania law allows the regulation of State parks through the Pennsylvania Code. However, under 18 Pa.C.S. § 6109 (m.2), those with a License to Carry Firearms may carry concealed or in a vehicle regardless of these prohibitions. There are 120 state parks in Pennsylvania, and Penn LAGOs don’t have to miss out.
34 Pa.C.S. § 2525 Carry While Hunting
34 PS § 2525. Possession of firearm for protection of self or others.
It is common misconception among Penn LAGOs that the law prohibits you from bringing your everyday carry firearm on a hunt. However, the Pennsylvania Gaming Code expressly states that if you have a valid License to Carry Firearms, you may carry your weapon while hunting. Because this permission pertains specifically to protection, the statute further makes clear that it does not grant those licensed to carry the ability to hunt with guns or ammo otherwise prohibited by the gaming code. So just because you have a license to carry doesn’t mean you can use your Springfield XD to hunt, which is otherwise not allowed. Bottom line: you can carry, but only use it as you would anywhere else.
Legally speaking, there is no general firearms prohibition which applies to colleges and universities in Pennsylvania. Rather, the law allows each institution to decide what kind of rules to implement. However, in light of recent Supreme Court holdings regarding the Second Amendment, many of Pennsylvania’s state universities have lifted the complete bans they once had in place. Instead, these universities have updated their policies to permit those with a License to Carry Firearms to carry, at least in some places, on campus. In general, the universities have placed numerous restrictions on where on campus one can carry. As a result, Penn LAGOs will generally be extremely limited on campuses, which invites us to question whether it is worth the trouble, or even practical to do so. Remember, simply because something is legal doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea. Either way, for those who hold a valid License to Carry Firearms, it’s not against the law to carry your firearm on campus in Pennsylvania.
So, to recap, assuming you have a valid Pennsylvania License to Carry Firearms:
HOT ZONES (Don’t Carry)
- Court Facilities
- Airport (through the TSA checkpoint)
- All Federal Facilities (pay close attention to post offices, Veterans Affairs buildings/hospitals, military bases, and parking lots for all of the these)
- Correctional Institutions/Detention Facilities
- Mental Hospitals
- City Parks in Philadelphia [state preemption should make it a permissible carry place for a licensee]
COOL ZONES (Can Carry, but Commonly misconstrued as Hot Zones)
- Bars & Restaurants that Serve Alcohol
- Churches & Places of Religious Worship
- National & State Parks (if licensed, concealed or in a vehicle)
- Hunting Grounds (Carry while hunting)
- Universities and Colleges in Pennsylvania