02/01/2015 11:00 EST | Updated 04/03/2015 05:59 EDT

NRA lawsuits a bullying tactic say mayors in 3 U.S. cities

What happens when the National Rifle Association sues your city? The mayors of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lancaster say you stand up to a bully and fight back.

The trio of cities in Pennsylvania is currently tangled in a messy web of legal battles against both the state government and the powerful NRA over gun control laws they passed years ago.

The mayors say they are acting to make their cities safer and to cut off the illegal gun trade that is carried out on their streets. The NRA says the cities had no authority to pass the laws they did, infringing on the rights of gun owners, and they can't get away with it.

"They're just so outrageous, so insensitive to the loss of life and death that goes on all across Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and across the United States of America," Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said in an interview. "We're fighting back. We're not just going to sit around and complain about it."

For years, cities in Pennsylvania have been passing their own local gun laws, and recently one of the most common laws passed has been a requirement for gun owners to report a lost or stolen firearm within a certain period of time or else face a penalty.

Cities accused of defying state law

"We all respect the second amendment but we also believe, at least in America, that we have a first amendment right not to be shot. We're talking about illegal guns, we're talking about common sense responsibility that you would report your gun if it was lost or stolen, like you would your car if someone stole it," said Nutter.

The NRA doesn't see it that way. It tried suing the cities but courts rejected the claims on the grounds that the group didn't have legal standing. Then Pennsylvania's state legislature handed a victory to the NRA at the end of 2014 when it passed a law that would grant the NRA and other groups standing, thereby facilitating future lawsuits.

The NRA was quick to act. It filed lawsuits against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lancaster on Jan.14. The claim argues that the cities had defied a state law that prohibits municipalities from enacting gun control ordinances. The lost or stolen reporting ordinance doesn't make people safer, according to the NRA, which says there are already laws on the books to prevent illegal gun purchases and the cities are simply going after law-abiding gun owners.

"You have a group of municipalities that have spent 30 or 40 years defying the law and we're the bad guys?" said Jonathan Goldstein, the NRA lawyer handling the case, in an interview with CBC News.

The lawsuit isn't about the substance of the ordinances, he explained, it's about forcing the municipalities to follow the rules. If they have good ideas about gun control they should be bringing them to the state legislature, he said, not taking matters into their own hands.

NRA called a bully

"I believe that the Pennsylvania legislature has struck a very careful balance, a thoughtful balance that works for Pennsylvania," he said about gun control in the state. "It is not up to a group of municipalities to change that."

The mayors, while fending off the NRA lawsuits, are also fighting the state over the way the law allowing the NRA to sue them was passed. It was unconstitutional, they maintain, and there was no public debate about it. They are fighting it in court.

"For those that say they are defending the constitution, they have a very funny way of doing it," Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said in an interview. "In this case only one voice was heard, the voice of the NRA."

Other cities in Pennsylvania backed away from their gun laws when the threat of NRA lawsuits began looming a few months ago. Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray said he doesn't mind fighting the NRA on their behalf and that his community, even some members of the NRA who view the lawsuits as "idiotic," are behind him. The city has started a legal defence fund that so far has collected about $10,000.

Gray said he and the other mayors are confident their cities did have the authority to pass the laws and in his view the NRA launched the lawsuits because they are effective fundraising tools and whip up hysteria about gun control.

"These tactics are not to resolve public policy issues, these tactics are to bully cash-starved cities into complying with their will," Gray said.

"I learned in high school the only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him. So we're standing up."