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Flowers surround Stars of David at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue to the 11 people killed Oct. 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh. [(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)]

Mass Shooting

After Shooting, Pittsburgh Leaders Grapple with State Curbs on Local Gun Laws

In the wake of the Tree of Life attack, the City Council is trying to find its way around NRA-backed pre-emption statutes.

This story was reported in partnership with PublicSource, a nonprofit news organization covering the Pittsburgh region.

City Councilman Corey O’Connor said now is the time for Pittsburgh to take bold action on gun control, even if it means confronting lawsuits and the ire of a Republican-controlled state Legislature and powerful gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association.

“We will fight this. Pittsburgh will take a stand,” O’Connor said, holding back tears at a Council meeting three days after a heavily armed man killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue.

“And we will get sued… You want to fight? We’re here to fight. Our community is here to fight.”

The NRA has unsuccessfully sued Pittsburgh twice already over a 2008 ordinance that requires gun owners to tell authorities when they realize their guns are lost or stolen. Republican state lawmakers have also tried twice to make Pittsburgh and other cities easier to sue over local laws that infringe on gun access and ownership.

The Statehouse has long been hostile to stricter firearms legislation, making a notable break earlier this fall by passing a law to force quicker surrender of firearms owned by convicted domestic abusers or subjects of protection-from-abuse orders (PFAs). More than a dozen other gun control measures stalled in the current legislative session, including two proposed bans on assault weapons that languished in committee.

Robert Bowers, carrying an AR-15 assault-style rifle and three handguns, opened fire at Tree of Life on Saturday morning in what is believed to be the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States. It was the 296th mass shooting in the country this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which counts incidents with at least four injuries.

O’Connor said there is “no reason on Earth” why Bowers should have had an AR-15. Several other Council members expressed on Tuesday that they supported taking action on gun control. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto also supports taking action, but a spokesperson declined to give details, saying the mayor’s priority this week is paying respects to victims.

Like most states, Pennsylvania broadly prohibits municipalities from passing local gun rules, making any move by Pittsburgh likely to draw aggressive challenges from gun advocates.

“I don’t give a shit about that either,” Councilman Anthony Coghill said about potential court challenges. “Sue us. They’ll sue us, we’ll sue them back. We don’t want to be liable for big money here, but stand for your principles.”

Another councilman, the Rev. Ricky Burgess, isn’t new to the gun debate. In a 10-year council career, he said he’s done everything in his power to reduce gun violence in Pittsburgh — including voting for bills related to police training and response to gun crimes and writing call-to-action commentary.

“Certainly I stand ready to pass any legislation that controls the flow of guns in our city,” Burgess said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, we are prohibited by the state Legislature in two different ways.”

Burgess is referencing two state laws that block Pittsburgh from creating its own gun control ordinances. The Uniform Firearms Act [see section 6120(a)] and the Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Act [see section 2962(g)] explicitly prohibit municipalities from regulating the transfer, ownership, transportation, or possession of firearms.

Rob Conroy, director of organizing for CeaseFirePA, said he doesn’t believe state law stops all local action. Under his interpretation, local governments can pass legislation requiring gun owners to tell authorities if they realize their guns have been lost or stolen; that, he believes, doesn’t impact their gun ownership or right to carry. Gun rights advocates disagree. So, “lost or stolen” ordinances can still imperil local governments, as they did when the NRA sued Pittsburgh after passing the ordinance in 2008. The ordinance remains in city code, but is not enforced.

Conservative lawmakers in Pennsylvania passed a law in 2014 providing any individual in the state or organizations like the NRA increased power to sue municipalities over gun ordinances — even if they can’t prove they’ve been directly affected.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court threw the law out on a technicality in 2016; the measure was a rider on a bill unrelated to gun laws. Similar versions were introduced last year in the state House and Senate, though they have not passed.

The NRA’s support for statewide bans on local gun rules stretches back to the 1980s. Most states have laws similar to those in Pennsylvania. The few states that don’t —  New York, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New Jersey — have some of the strictest gun laws in the country. In Connecticut, for instance, gun owners must have a special certificate to purchase ammunition.

Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in the early 1990s passed ordinances to regulate some assault weapons. State lawmakers responded by amending the Uniform Firearms Act to explicitly prohibit local control.

The NRA did not return a call seeking comment for this story. Republican majority leaders in Harrisburg did not return calls for this story.

Kim Stolfer, co-founder of Firearms Owners Against Crime (FOAC) said he believes Pittsburgh officials are prohibited from discussing gun control measures because of a stipulation the city signed in 1995 in a court case he and other gun advocates filed in response to Pittsburgh’s ordinance. The city promised to “abide by and adhere to Pennsylvania law.”

Councilman Coghill said he favors lobbying state lawmakers over gun control with other Pittsburgh Council members. If successful, that would render local action a moot point.

“We go as a group to D.C., to Harrisburg, wherever. It just makes sense,” Coghill said.

Senator Wayne Fontana, a Democrat who represents part of Pittsburgh, supports that idea.

“I’d love to see them come and shake the tree a little. The more, the merrier,” he said.

In response to the February mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, Fontana proposed a bill in March to ban assault-style weapons in Pennsylvania. The proposed bill is sitting idle in the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.

The effectiveness of bans to restrict firearms access is highly dependent on how state lawmakers define the weapons in their legislation.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have banned assault weapons. The states include Connecticut, which strengthened its law to include more weapon models banned in a push for stronger gun laws after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. A gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

Aaron Zappia, communications director for Republican chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Stewart Greenleaf, said Fontana’s bill won’t move before the legislative session ends in November.

“Typically things like this, where there’s no chance that it gets passed, they don’t come up for a vote in committee,” Zappia said.

The lack of action annoys Fontana, who said bills should come up for a vote even if they have no chance of passing. He said that’s what he was elected to do, write laws that would benefit his district and vote on them.

“The majority party in Harrisburg won’t run these bills,” Fontana said. “When they see the common denominator of AR-15s (in mass shootings), I’m not sure what (might) compel them to think about gun control.”

A similar House bill from Representative Ed Gainey, a Pittsburgh Democrat, has been stalled in committee since January 2017. Representative Ron Marsico, a Republican who represents portions of Dauphin County, chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Marsico, whom the NRA has endorsed, did not return calls for comment.

Representative Dan Frankel, a Democrat who represents Squirrel Hill, called a PublicSource reporter on Tuesday from a shiva memorial for brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, who were both killed at Tree of Life on Saturday. The Rosenthals were brothers of Frankel’s first campaign manager and chief of staff, who remains a close friend.

As chair of the House Democratic Caucus and the PA SAFE Caucus, which focuses on gun safety efforts, Frankel took heart in the recent passage of the law to force gun owners to quickly surrender their weapons if they are the subject of a PFA or have a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction. The law tightens the time period for surrender from 60 days to 24 hours and no longer allows weapons to be surrendered to friends or family.

A host of other gun bills were left in limbo this legislative session, including those that would strengthen background checks; ban bump stocks (which help to simulate automatic fire); and restrict access to high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Frankel said he looks forward to “reinvigorating the effort” to ban assault-style weapons, but he’s unsure if a bill can pass.

“I think we’re still a few years away,” he said. “I think we’re going to give it a go. We’re going to see what happens in this election.”

Conroy similarly said reform efforts hinge on the Nov. 6 election.

Of the stalled bills, he saw promise in an April proposal by Representative Todd Stephens, a Republican representing parts Montgomery County. Stephens’ bill would allow guns to be taken away from individuals at risk of harming themselves or others. That bill, Conroy said, could prevent future shootings by allowing law enforcement or family members to seek court intervention if they knew someone had access to weapons and posed a threat.

The NRA, however, pushed to have Stephens’ “red flag” bill watered down before turning against it by sending an alert to its members asking them to tell their representatives to oppose the bill.

Stephens said the bill is effectively dead. He cites opposition from the NRA and FOAC.

“There’s no question that we need to do more,” said Stephens, explaining that he’s open to considering tougher measures like an assault weapons ban.

Stolfer described Stephens as pandering to gun control supporters for electoral support. Stolfer broadly opposes gun control and argues that the “red flag” bill is far too broad; he pointed to one example that the bill would grant power to people to request the court to seize firearms from former intimate partners.

He also criticized what the bill would do in practice — merely taking guns and allowing the owner to walk free, possibly with access to other harmful objects.

“We don’t take their car. We don’t take their drugs. We don’t take their knives,” said Stolfer, who believes that gun control makes people less safe. He said better security, including armed congregants at places of worship, can deter shooters.

Fontana, in March, proposed a similar “red flag” bill in the Senate. The Pittsburgh City Council officially supported it along with his proposal for an assault weapons ban. Both stalled in committee.

Against this backdrop, Pittsburgh’s leaders vow to take local action, almost certainly drawing opposition from conservative lawmakers, the NRA and gun rights advocates.

At City Hall, leaders like O’Connor seem serene about picking the fight.

“This has been a long time coming,” he said.

Trace reporter Mike Spies contributed to this report. J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource’s government and data reporter. Jeffrey Benzing is a PublicSource reporter and assistant editor.