'Happy to Take a Stand': Pittsburgh City Council Approves Gun Ban After Synagogue Shooting

Opponents said the legislation violates a state law prohibiting municipalities from regulating firearms and have threatened to sue the city and file private criminal complaints against council members and the mayor.
by | April 3, 2019 AT 7:50 AM

By Bob Bauder

Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday voted to approve a package of controversial bills aimed at banning certain weapons in the city and keeping guns out of the hands of people deemed public threats.

Council voted 6-3 to send the bills to the desk of Mayor Bill Peduto, who said he would sign them. The mayor said he would schedule a date for signing and invite city council members and organizations that supported the legislation to attend.

Opponents said the legislation violates a state law prohibiting municipalities from regulating firearms and have threatened to sue the city and file private criminal complaints against council members and the mayor.

"We're happy to take a stand," said Councilman Corey O'Connor of Swisshelm Park, one of the main sponsors of the legislation. "It's going to be a difficult battle, but we're willing to fight it."

The legislation consists of three bills. One would ban possession and use of certain semiautomatic weapons, including assault rifles. A second would ban ammunition and accessories, such as large capacity magazines. A third bill, dubbed "extreme risk protection," would permit courts to temporarily remove guns from a person deemed to be a public threat.

City residents who currently own guns and accessories outlined in the bills would be grandfathered, O'Connor said. Violators would face a civil penalty that carries a $1,000 fine, or up to 90 days in prison, for each offense.

Supporters said they were willing to accept the potential cost of defending the legislation if it can reduce gun violence that has plagued the city and America. Peduto has said attorneys have promised to represent the city for free. He has not named those attorneys.

"Even it there was a cost to taxpayers, which there won't be, but even if there was, the cost of this bill saving one life, just one life, is worth more than the money that would be spent," Peduto said. "Anybody who would put the value of that money over that one life does not value life."

Val Finnell, 50, of Kennedy, an outspoken critic, said he and others are prepared to file criminal complaints against Peduto and the six council members who passed the legislation as soon as the mayor signs it.

"If he signs between today and Friday, we'll be there Friday," Finnell said.

Peduto said he expects the challenge.

"I think as you look around this country and around this world, legislative bodies are challenging the validity of preemption laws and laws that would put elected officials through a criminal process for taking on the gun manufacturing lobby," he said, adding that state and federal officials have done nothing to address the situation. "We've seen what doing nothing has done. It has led to an escalation of severe mass murders and we're going to take action on a local level."

Council members Darlene Harris of Spring Hill, Theresa Kail-Smith of Westwood and Anthony Coghill of Beechview voted against the bills, citing among other things cost of litigation and the state law that prohibits municipalities from regulating firearms.

Kail-Smith suggested council could have approved a resolution asking the state to pass stiffer firearms regulations. She also said the bills would disproportionately impact minority neighborhoods where shootings occur.

Harris noted that council in 1993 passed a ban on assault rifles that state courts overturned. She predicted the same thing would happen with the current legislation.

"All this is going to bring us is lawsuits," she said.

O'Connor said he feels Pittsburgh has a good chance of a favorable court ruling.

"We have new people on certain (state) courts that weren't there in 1993, and, since 1993, I'd ask how many mass shootings and just regular gun violence you just see in the streets almost on a daily basis have occurred," he said. "I think people are starting to change their minds and be more open to some form of gun control."

Anti-gun organizations, including CeaseFirePA and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, lauded the city for approving the legislation.

"This has been a long time coming," said Rob Conroy, CeaseFirePA's director of organizing. "We have bodies dropping every single day in all sorts of neighborhoods within the city limits, and we've had a hate crime in October, which was not even the first mass shooting that Pittsburgh has had, where 11 people were shot for having the temerity to actually attend services on a Saturday morning. If that doesn't move someone to do something, I don't know what does."

He was referring to shootings at Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill on Oct. 27. The mass shooting prompted council to propose the gun regulations.

(c)2019 The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)