Today, the Superior Court issued a decision in Commonwealth v. Goslin, which addressed the defense in 18 Pa.C.S. § 912 that a weapon could be carried on school property for other lawful purposes.
In this case, Mr. Goslin attended an informal hearing with school officials regarding his son’s possession of a knife on school property. The purpose of the hearing was to “allow the family and student to discuss and answer any questions they may have and the school administration to ask any questions they may have and review the incident as they know it to have been.” During the hearing, Mr Goslin stated “that he had a knife and asked if [the school] would arrest him for having it. At that point, he forcefully placed it on the table in front of people at the meeting.”
Mr. Goslin testified that he carries the knife with him every day “because [he] use[s] it. [He] use[s] it at work, [he] use[s] it to sharpen pencils, [he] use[s] it to open tuna cans when [his] wife forgets to pack [him] a tuna can opener. [He] whittle sticks with [his] sons.” He went on to declare: “It occurred to me at the moment, oh, my goodness, they called the police on my nine-year-old son for having a whittling knife. I actually have a
pocket knife on me now and am I a criminal as well?”
During Mr. Goslin’s trial, he stipulated to possessing the knife on school property but argued that it was possessed for an “other lawful purpose” as provided for by 18 Pa.C.S. 912(c). Specifically, Section 912(c) provides: “Defense.–It shall be a defense that the weapon is possessed and used in conjunction with a lawful supervised school activity or course or is possessed for other lawful purpose.”
Unfortunately, the trial court declared
My view of the plain reading or the plain language in the statute is that the defense is there for some lawful purpose upon which the weapon would be brought onto the school property, that’s not the same thing as saying that the weapon wasn’t brought there for some unlawful purpose. I see a distinction between those two, and I guess I would agree with the position the Commonwealth has taken that that defense is there for someone to bring a weapon onto the property for some legitimate reason pursuant to their presence on the school property, and there are probably lots of things.
I think in [Appellant’s] case, if [he] had said he brought the knife that [his] son was accused of having and it was the basis of the hearing, [Appellant] brought it from an evidentiary standpoint for the hearing itself, that to me would be some type of an example of bringing a weapon onto the property for lawful purposes.
The hearing was there, it involved that particular item which the school was alleging was a weapon, and if you had said the reason you had it was for that, I could see that’s something that probably the statute would cover. But that isn’t the case here. This is a different weapon. It’s clearly one that’s set forth in the statute as being prohibited. There isn’t a question about you knowing that it was on your person at the time.
The statute is clearly created to prohibit weapons from being brought onto school property unless there is a specific reason as carved out in the statute that they are to be viewed as not violating this criminal provision, but I don’t think [Appellant’s] situation falls within one of those reasons.
As a result, the trial court convicted him and he appealed, pro se. Unfortunately, the Superior Court believed him competent to handle his own appeal and did not appoint an attorney to handle his appeal.
After the Superior Court found the language “other lawful purpose” to be “not explicit,” it looked to the rules of statutory construction and declared that “public policy of maintaining, and acting to ensure, the safety of those who inhabit our schools” was of paramount importance in interpreting the statutory language.
As a result, the Superior Court held:
Appellant appeared in his capacity as a parent, with no purpose to possessing the knife on school property.
Had Appellant been at the school in a capacity which necessitated his possession of the knife, he could avail himself of the “other lawful purpose” defense to possessing the knife on school property. But that is not the case before us. If we were to accept Appellant’s interpretation of Section 912(c), we would be sanctioning the presence of weapons on school property in countless scenarios. Such sanction would be contrary to the intent of the General Assembly, which clearly enacted Section 912 to safeguard public welfare by prohibiting weapons in or near schools. We therefore discern no error by the trial court in convicting Appellant of possessing a weapon on school property, and affirm the June 2, 2015 judgment of sentence.
Learned Judge Dubow’s dissent, on the other hand, correctly reviews the plain meaning of the statute and declares:
Here, unlike the majority, I find that the statutory language is clear and unambiguous and should, therefore, not look beyond its plain language to ascertain its meaning.
My review confirms that the plain meaning of Section 912(c) provides two separate defenses: (1) possessing a weapon on school property “in conjunction with a lawful supervised school activity;” and (2) possessing “for other lawful purpose.”
Something that is “other” is “distinct from the one or those first mentioned or understood,” or is “additional.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1598 (1986).
A “lawful” act is one that is “allowed or permitted by law.”
And, last, a “purpose” is “something that one sets before himself as an object to be attained,” “an end or aim to be kept in view in any plan, measure, exertion, or operation,” or “an object, effect, or result aimed at, intended, or attained.”
By its plain terms, the first clause of this subsection specifically provides as a defense to the charge of Possession of Weapon on School Property the possession of a weapon that is possessed and used in association with a lawful supervised school activity or course.
The second clause of this subsection—and the one at issue here— serves as a catchall provision. The “other lawful purpose” language does not restrict the defense provided in section 912(c), as the majority has concluded. Instead, I find that the critical phrase does just the opposite. It expands the defense to include any additional or different lawful reason not otherwise mentioned in the first clause of section 912(c), regardless ofwhether it is school-related. To conclude otherwise renders “possessed for other lawful purpose” redundant with “possessed and used in association with a lawful supervised school activity or course.”
I note that the possession of weapons on school property is obviously a major concern to communities across Pennsylvania. It is, however, for the legislature, and not the courts, to limit the applicability of a defense to any crime. The legislature has not yet done so here and the courts lack the authority to re-write the clear and unambiguous language of Section 912(c). Therefore, I am bound to interpret Section 912(c) broadly, and, consequently, would reverse Appellant’s judgment of sentence and order a new trial. (emphasis added)
Accordingly, under this decision, an individual cannot carry a firearm pursuant to a valid license to carry firearms, even though such would not be a per se unlawful purpose. Rather, in Judge Mundy’s and Judge Strassburger’s judicially activist opinion, one must have an explicitly statutory permitted basis, such as being a law enforcement officer, to have a firearm on school property.
However, all may not be lost. Since this was a 3 judge panel decision, with a dissenting opinion, the Superior Court may be enticed to review the decision en banc, if a proper motion for reconsideration en banc is filed by competent counsel. Otherwise, unless appealed and overturned by the PA Supreme Court, this decision will be controlling.