Pittsburgh reveals gun control bills promised after Tree of Life shooting

Mayor Bill Peduto promotes local gun control legislation at a press conference on Dec. 14, 2018. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

Pittsburgh city officials on Friday announced a trio of gun control bills in response to the Oct. 27 shooting deaths of 11 people at Tree of Life synagogue.

Opposition is expected to be fierce. State law broadly prohibits local municipalities from restricting gun ownership. The National Rifle Association [NRA] — which has sued the city twice in 10 years — announced its opposition yesterday, saying Pittsburgh showed a “wholesale disregard of the rule of law.”

But in a Downtown press conference that included Gov. Tom Wolf, state lawmakers and local gun control advocates, Pittsburgh officials vowed to fight.

“Today, Pittsburgh is going to be a leader in building a statewide coalition to fight gun violence and the gun lobby,” said Councilman Corey O’Connor, who previously explained that Pittsburgh intends to scatter the NRA’s focus by lobbying cities nationwide to pass similar bills.

The proposed bills would ban assault weapons within city limits, prohibit ownership of gun accessories such as bump stocks and armor-piercing bullets and enable courts to temporarily remove guns from individuals if family members or law enforcement believe they pose a significant danger to themselves or others. O’Connor said they will be formally introduced in city council on Tuesday.

O’Connor said Pittsburgh has sent customizable text of the three bills to every third-class city in the state, which includes the 53 cities smaller in population than Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton. Already O’Connor said he has heard from a handful of mayors in the Pittsburgh suburbs who are “fully supportive.” He did not name municipalities.

Mayor Bill Peduto said the city has reached out to leaders in more than 100 cities nationwide, urging them also to pass gun laws. Pittsburgh’s bills are slotted for final passage in mid-February, marking the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Friday’s announcement falls on the six-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

The NRA yesterday publicly opposed the bills, based on sample language of the laws Pittsburgh sent to other cities.

“Each of the proposed ordinances, on its face, would be bad policy, constitutionally suspect, and ineffective in preventing or reducing firearm-related crime,” the NRA said on a posting on its website, adding that the bills are “squarely prohibited by Pennsylvania state law.”
The NRA did not provide further comment Friday.

In the past, state lawmakers have explicitly opposed local gun control efforts.

In the early 1990s, both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia passed ordinances regulating assault weapons, but state lawmakers responded by amending the Uniform Firearms Act to explicitly prohibit local control.

Pennsylvania’s Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Act also prohibits municipalities from regulating the “transfer, ownership, transportation or possession of firearms.”

However, Councilwoman Erika Strassburger pointed to language in Pennsylvania’s Constitution guaranteeing a right to “peace, safety and happiness” as a reason for taking action.

“The inability for local governments to enact their own common sense gun control measures defies this principle to its core,” said Strassburger, whose district includes the Tree of Life synagogue.

In a Jan. 9 letter to O’Connor, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. wrote that he does not believe the city has authority to enact the proposed legislation. Zappala wrote to O’Connor that he was “certain that you have sought the legal advice” as to whether council members could face criminal complaints for voting for the bills.

The AR-15 assault-style rifle used in the Tree of Life shooting was legally purchased. Gunman Robert Bowers also carried three legally purchased handguns.

Strassburger notes that she was a junior in high school during the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, which set off nationwide conversation about gun control and safety.

“Frankly, I find it shameful that we haven’t found a way by now toward meaningful permanent action at the federal level,” she said.

Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat who represents Squirrel Hill, is pushing to remove statewide prohibitions on local gun control. He is seeking support for legislation to strip state laws of language that impedes cities like Pittsburgh passing gun legislation.

Pittsburgh previously passed an ordinance requiring residents to report if they realized their firearms were lost or stolen. The 2008 ordinance is not enforced. It drew unsuccessful lawsuits from the NRA in 2009 and in 2015.

Meanwhile, in 2014, state lawmakers voted to remove legal barriers for groups like the NRA to sue cities like Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court deemed the law unconstitutional because it passed as an amendment to an unrelated bill.

Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, is pushing to remove barriers in state law to gun control legislation at the local level. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

“If the elected officials of the commonwealth refuse to take action, local officials have the right to do so,” Frankel said Friday. “In fact, they have the obligation to do so.”

The Legislature this year did pass a law to force quicker surrender of firearms owned by convicted domestic abusers or subjects of protection-from-abuse orders [PFAs]. Frankel called that the sole success of a caucus focused on gun legislation that he helped form after the Columbine shooting.

Earlier this week, Councilmen R. Daniel Lavelle and Rev. Ricky Burgess introduced measures to increase funding for the city’s group violence intervention initiative, raise $1 million in funds for violence prevention programming and to create committees for local officials and community members as part of the “STOP the Violence Initiative.”

Several officials Friday acknowledged that the pain of gun violence is common in Pittsburgh, not merely in mass shootings. Those shootings disproportionately impact the city’s black community.

“We know for decades and decades, gun violence on the streets of pittsburgh and other areas across the country has taken far too many of our sons and daughters and our mothers and fathers,” Strassburger said.

In its Thursday posting, the NRA said Pittsburgh is acting against state law and showing a disregard for “the fundamental rights of Pittsburgh citizens.”

Peduto responded Friday by saying the NRA has spent decades arguing that “there is nothing we can do” to lessen “mass homicide and the deaths that are occurring on a daily basis” across the country. He said he invites debate from the NRA during public comments to city council.

“I will welcome them to walk the streets of the City of Pittsburgh,” Peduto said, “to hear from real Americans about what it is that we want to see done.”

(Updated Jan. 15 with information from District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr.)

Jeffrey Benzing is a PublicSource reporter and assistant editor. He can be reached at jeff@publicsource.org, 412-515-0062 or on Twitter @jabenzing. He can be reached securely at PGP: bit.ly/2Au8Ca9.

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