Pittsburgh moves to ban assault weapons after Tree of Life massacre

Officials also want to prohibit bump stocks and allow the courts to take guns from people who are an “extreme risk.”

Mayor Bill Peduto speaks Friday, Dec. 14 about a set of proposed local-level gun control restrictions.

Mayor Bill Peduto speaks Friday, Dec. 14 about a set of proposed local-level gun control restrictions.

Colin Deppen / The Incline

Updated 1:09 p.m.

Pittsburgh officials want to ban assault weapons, prohibit bump stocks and large capacity magazines, and allow the courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person deemed an “extreme risk.”

Municipalities in Pennsylvania are preempted by state law from passing local gun laws, but Pittsburgh is pushing ahead in the wake of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Squirrel Hill. The legislative package unveiled Friday has both emotional significance in a still-traumatized city and likely legal challenges ahead of it on the road to enforcement.

Still, Mayor Bill Peduto and the other elected officials who gathered Friday at the City-County Building — six years to the day of the Sandy Hook massacre — were adamant about the need for new gun laws. Pittsburgh, along with Lancaster and Philadelphia, was sued by the NRA in 2015 over an ordinance that mandated the reporting of lost and stolen firearms. That case was thrown out after a state law that made the lawsuit possible was ruled unconstitutional.

“If you have to do it again, we’ll do it again,” Peduto said of being sued. “But let me assure you this: it won’t just be Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Lancaster. It will be townships and boroughs throughout Pennsylvania. It will be Parkland and Orlando and Sandy Hook and Thousands Oaks and Pittsburgh. It will be throughout this country and this state that we’ll fight that fight.”

Peduto was joined by Gov. Tom Wolf, state Sens. Jay Costa and Wayne Fontana, state Rep. Dan Frankel, and council members Corey O’Connor and Erika Strassburger.

What the bills would do

The proposed legislation would:

  • Make it “unlawful to manufacture, sell, purchase, transport, carry, store, or otherwise hold in one’s possession” assault weapons, including the Colt AR-15 — one of the weapons law enforcement said the synagogue shooter used.
  • Ban items including “bump stocks, armor-penetrating bullets, sawed-off rifles and large capacity magazines.”
  • Institute Extreme Risk Protection Orders, which allow law enforcement, family members, and household members to petition a court to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person “alleged to present a danger of suicide or of causing extreme bodily injury.”

There will be at least one public hearing as well as community conversations about the legislation, Strassburger said. O’Connor said he hopes to have the legislation passed by Feb. 14, the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Others stressed that while the Tree of Life massacre may have prompted this legislative initiative, the proposals are meant to stem all forms of gun violence in the city.

“The reason I am here, and many others as well, is our child was murdered on the streets of the City of Pittsburgh,” said Valerie Dixon with the Coalition Against Violence. Dixon’s son, Robert, was fatally shot in Lincoln-Larimer in 2001.

“When we talk about gun violence, we see this on a regular basis. What makes the headlines is the tragedy at Tree of Life synagogue, definitely the tragedy that has happened across the country, but we see it in the community every day. We see it every day. […] This happened to my family 17 years ago, but I was just crying this morning. That pain never leaves.”

Josh Fidel, a senior at Taylor Allderdice High School who lives near the Tree of Life synagogue, said he lives in “constant fear of being attacked” now, adding, “It is our civic duty to ensure no other person ever has to feel this way.”

‘This is not the America anybody wants’

Weeks after 11 people were killed and six others injured at the Tree of Life synagogue and immediately following a public vigil at Point State Park on Nov. 9, Peduto said that he and city council officials were discussing local-level gun restrictions in response to the massacre.

More recently, Peduto sent an email to the mayors of 60 cities nationwide urging them to also pursue local-level gun restrictions. Recipients included the mayors of Las Vegas and Orlando, both sites of high-profile mass shootings in recent years.

“I am writing you today because this is not the America anybody wants, where schools put children through active shooter training, our parents and grandparents can’t safely enter houses of worship, and where people are killed in broad daylight because of their race, gender, religion or identity,” read a copy of the email obtained by The Incline.

The legislation unveiled today is itself a direct challenge to state law, which explicitly preempts local regulation of the “lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components.”

Frankel, a Democrat representing Squirrel Hill, is pushing legislation in Harrisburg that would change state law and allow for regulation of firearms by municipalities. He said Friday the passage of a bill that mandates the confiscation of firearms from alleged abusers within 24 hours has given him hope that more reform is possible. Still, it remains to to be seen whether his legislation can garner enough support to pass in the conservative General Assembly.

In a tweet on Thursday, state Rep. Aaron Bernstine, an Ellwood City Republican, wrote, “Hey @billpeduto, when you and your pals at @CeaseFirePA pass ordinances that violate the constitution, PA statute, and court orders…. the pro-#2A PA legislators will be right here ready to put you back in your place.”

The General Assembly in 2014 passed a bill, signed by then-Gov. Tom Corbett, that made it possible for firearm owners and groups like the NRA to sue municipalities that pass local gun laws. That law was ruled unconstitutional on a technicality, and lawmakers have pushed to pass a new version in recent years. That effort has been supported by some Democratic representatives from Allegheny County including House Minority Leader Frank Dermody.

Gov. Wolf’s spokesperson said he would veto such legislation if it passed both chambers.

In a blog post published Wednesday and titled “Stealing Rights and Property in Steel City?“, the National Rifle Association expressed alarm at Pittsburgh’s pending proposals — citing copies of drafts obtained by the organization — and the city’s efforts to get other cities across the country to adopt those ordinances as well.

“… if the drafts were enacted as written,” the blog post reads, “the resulting ordinances would infringe [on] fundamental rights, violate state law, and stick municipal taxpayers with hefty legal fees for the inevitable court challenges the new laws would provoke.”

At this morning’s press conference, Peduto said he believes the measures do not infringe on anyone’s right to bear arms and that while Second Amendment rights are guaranteed, they’re not unlimited.

Peduto said this includes a person’s ability to carry any weapon, anywhere, at anytime.

Asked about the NRA’s comments, Peduto responded, “We look forward to that debate in this chamber with the NRA not hiding behind a blog but coming and speaking openly, and I will welcome them to walk the streets of the City of Pittsburgh to hear from real Americans about what it is we want to see done.”