Last month’s election sparked a great deal of questions for us about whether a person could lawfully carry a firearm into a Pennsylvania polling place to vote. Generally speaking, the answer is yes. There is no provision in Pennsylvania’s Uniform Firearms Act or any other Pennsylvania law that prohibits a person from otherwise lawfully possessing or carrying a firearm at a polling place or while voting.
Of course, there are always exceptions, and an exception exists here (at least on the face of the law), where the polling place is an elementary school, secondary school, or court facility, all of which are places where firearms are generally not permitted pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S. 912-913. However, with respect to schools, the law makes an exception to this exception for the person carrying a firearm in a school zone or on school property if that person has a valid Pennsylvania-issued License to Carry Firearms (LTCF) and is carrying the firearm either:
1. In conjunction with a lawful supervised school activity or course, or
2. For an “other lawful purpose.” See 18 U.S.C. 922(q)(2) and 18 Pa.C.S. 912-913.
Unfortunately, the “other lawful purpose” exception has never been defined, and it is difficult to predict what a court would consider to be an “other lawful purpose” if this exception were to be raised as a defense. For example, could one make the case that carrying a firearm for self defense is a lawful purpose, even if one happens to be in a school zone or on school property? Perhaps, especially if one considers that even schools are not completely safe from senseless gang violence or horrific acts of terrorism.
Are there any exceptions in the law if your polling place is a court facility? No, but if your polling place is a court facility, 18 Pa. C.S. 913(e) requires that facility to have lockers readily available for you to store your lawfully carried firearms at no charge to you.
Keep in mind that under 18 Pa. C.S. 6120, regulating the ownership and possession of firearms and ammunition can only happen at the state level. No county, township, or municipality can regulate the lawful ownership or possession of firearms or ammunition. That means that no local government official, including a county voting officer, can set a rule prohibiting you from entering a polling place or voting while lawfully carrying a firearm.
There may be a very rare exception in the case where the municipality actually owns the building where the election is taking place. In that case, the municipality as owner might have the right to prevent you from being on the premises if they do not want you to be in possession of a firearm there. However, a court has never had occasion to balance the property owning right of the municipality with the citizen’s fundamental right to vote, and most polling places are not actually owned by townships or municipalities.
County election officials have been put on notice of state preemption with respect to regulating the ownership and possession of firearms and ammunition as described above. Indeed, on October 29, 2010 the Pennsylvania Department of State issued a memorandum to “All County Contact Persons” that provides in relevant part:
“The Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act does not allow county boards of elections to enact resolutions or any other rules and regulations prohibiting firearms in [polling places that are not school property or court facilities].”
However, as noted above, the question of whether a valid Pennsylvania LTCF holder can possess a firearm on school property for an otherwise undefined “other lawful purpose” remains unresolved.