Updated 11:57 a.m.
There will be guns on the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh on Monday — lots of them, potentially.
A protest against local-level gun control measures introduced by Pittsburgh City Council last month is expected to draw hundreds of gun enthusiasts from across the state to the City-County Building on Grant Street.
The event will take place outside the building, which houses the offices of council members and the mayor. Protesters are encouraged to open carry firearms during the event. Counter protesters are expected as well, and public officials have promised the police presence will be massive.
Here’s what to expect and why it’s happening.
What are they protesting?
On Dec. 14, Mayor Bill Peduto and members of Pittsburgh City Council unveiled a package of local-level gun control measures inspired by the Oct. 27 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.
The measures would 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.”
Critics, including the NRA, immediately seized upon the legislation, calling the proposals illegal under a state law that bars Pennsylvania municipalities from enacting their own firearms regulations.
City officials have vowed to press on and say they hope to have the legislation passed by mid-to-late February. Opponents have vowed to sue if that happens. A public hearing on the legislation is now set for Jan. 24.
Who organized the protest?
Justin Dillon, a 32-year-old from Erie.
Dillon has organized gun rights rallies before and is the founder of Open Carry Pennsylvania, an organization dedicated to “promot[ing] the knowledge that openly carrying firearms is a legal and lawful choice in the Commonwealth of [Pennsylvania].”
Dillon has organized pro-gun rallies before and notably sued the City of Erie over a ban on guns in city parks roughly a month before he and seven other activists were cited for violating the rule during a June 22, 2013 rally in that city’s Perry Square. A magistrate fined each of them $225.50. All eight activists were licensed to carry the guns. Dillon’s suit against the city’s ban wound up in Commonwealth Court, where a judge ruled against the municipal restriction.
The city declined to appeal and dropped the charges against Dillon and the others, Erie Times-News reported at the time.
How many people are expected?
Attendance predictions have ranged from 200 to 1,000.
Tom Campione of The Lehigh Valley Tea Party is traveling to Pittsburgh for Monday’s protest with a dozen other Lehigh Valley residents. He said social media interest doesn’t always translate to day-of attendance.
“It’s winter and a Monday, so who knows who all is gonna show up,” Campione said. “I would frankly be happy if a total of 100 people showed up.”
Is it legal to openly carry firearms in public?
Yes. Pennsylvania is an open carry state, and that means you’re allowed to carry a gun in public as long as it’s not concealed and as long as you’re legally allowed to possess one.
You can also concealed carry in Pennsylvania, but that requires you possess a permit.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s only first-class city, a concealed carry permit is needed to open carry a firearm. Pittsburgh has no such local rule in place.
What types of guns will protesters be carrying?
Campione said all members of his contingent — but not necessarily all gun rights protesters — will be carrying firearms. He added, “I typically carry two firearms: a compact .45 and a pocket revolver.” Campione said at least one individual in his group plans to open carry a long gun — “either an AK-47 or a 12-gauge shotgun.”
He added, “Almost everyone in our group carries with a round in the chamber because we all review safety and the law, and we’re very comfortable carrying cocked and loaded.”
Are guns allowed in the City-County Building?
In advance of Monday’s rally, the city put up signs outside the City-County Building saying firearms and weapons are prohibited inside. This prompted a challenge and the threat of a lawsuit from the Firearms Industry Consulting Group, which argued that state law requires receptacles for weapons be provided for those looking to enter the government building.
As of Friday afternoon, Newsradio 1020 KDKA reported that the city had altered the signs, which “now tell gun owners that secure lockers are available for free inside the building for visitors with weapons.”
So, yes, you may see weapons in the City-County Building on Monday, and you’re guaranteed to see them outside and around the property.
What are police doing to prepare?
Department of Public Safety spokesperson Chris Togneri said the organizers of Monday’s protest applied for and received a protest permit and “have been cooperative with Public Safety.”
Togneri added by email: “As with all protests in Pittsburgh, the City’s guiding principle will continue to be protecting people’s First Amendment rights while ensuring safety for all, including protesters, motorists who might be affected by road closures and all other city residents and visitors. We will treat these protesters and this protest as we treat all protesters and protests. Public Safety will have police officers present: Uniformed officers, plainclothes officers, and officers on motorcycles and bicycles and in vehicles to ensure public safety throughout the event.”
Impact on commute?
Road closures could include Grant Street in front of the City-County Building. Togneri said, “We’ll be prepared to shut down Grant […] but not from the start.”
The rally is scheduled for noon and isn’t expected to assemble before 11 a.m., so the morning commute shouldn’t be heavily impacted.
Are counter protests expected?
City officials and police are preparing for counter protesters, though further details were unavailable Friday.
Where are protesters from?
The Lehigh Valley Tea Party — which bills itself as “PA’s Most Active Conservative Group” — is one of a handful of groups organizing transportation to the event from outside the area. An eventbrite listing for those looking to join from Lehigh Valley includes a photo of Peduto with the words, “We will not comply Mr. Mayor.”
Campione said attendees of Monday’s protest will be coming from other corners of the state, including his, and possibly neighboring states like Ohio. Dillon told the Post-Gazette he has “people coming from Chicago, from Philadelphia, the middle of the state,” and Ohio.
Why are protesters coming from outside Pittsburgh if these regulations apply here?
Board member of The Lehigh Valley Tea Party and 2020 Republican candidate for Pennsylvania’s 7th U.S. Congressional District, Dean Browning, said the short answer is precedent. They fear that Pittsburgh’s attempt to regulate firearms locally, if successful, would prompt municipalities across the state and maybe the country to follow suit. That worries gun enthusiasts like Browning who say they fear a large-scale erosion of Second Amendment rights as a result.
“Everybody supports the goal they want to achieve,” Browning said of Pittsburgh legislators. “We all want to be safe in our schools and our churches and our workplaces.”
But Browning said he believes the legislation is both a violation of the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions. He also disagrees with the use of the term “assault weapons” in the city’s proposed ban.
“They are referring to semi-automatic weapons, which millions of people — and many across Pennsylvania — own and have in their house.” Browning said he’s one of them and added, “By making those illegal you suddenly make us criminals.”
Campione said while some protesters might be willing to accept some of the proposals put forward by Pittsburgh — namely restrictions on bump stocks or high capacity magazines — there is a fear of a snowball effect in which restrictions start narrow and widen over time.
“The left has taken such an extreme position on this that it almost forces us to stand strong and give them nothing,” Campione said. “You give them one thing and now suddenly they got 20 different bills. It doesn’t stop there.”
Justin Crocker, who identified himself as an organizer of Monday’s rally, offered a different take.
Crocker said protest organizers find all of Pittsburgh’s proposals equally objectionable, adding, “We most certainly do not accept any of those …”
Crocker continued by email: “The main point of this rally is the fact that it is against state law for local municipalities to enact their own gun control. Preemption exists to protect citizens from a patchwork of thousands of different laws that could find them in legal jeopardy by simply crossing a city border. […] Suppose Pennsylvania finally legalizes recreational marijuana, but allowed towns and cities to enact their own laws. In this town, you’re safe, but if you drive though the next town, you get arrested. Is that right?”