By: Rachel Pressdee, Feature Editor
On October 27, 2018, 11 people were murdered when a man opened fired inside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 340 reported mass shootings in, making this close-to-home incident one of many gun related acts of violence. Neither Congress nor the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has taken steps to address gun control, but Pittsburgh is trying to.
Five months after the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, Pittsburgh’s City Council passed three gun control bills that restrict the usage of military-style assault weapons, ban the use of armor-piercing ammunition and high-capacity magazines, and allow guns to be temporarily seized from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.
“We have not been able to get any movement in Harrisburg and Washington, and the answer is just don’t do nothing,” said Mayor Bill Peduto. “We’ve seen what doing nothing has done. It has led to an escalation in severe mass murders. And we’re going to take action on a local level.”
Councilwoman Erika Strassburger introduced the gun reform bills to Councilman Corey O’Connor in December 2018. Activists and politicians in the area have been fighting to reduce gun violence for decades, but the Tree of Life shooting has marked a turning point. Councilman O’Connor commented that he believes the rise of gun violence is changing the public’s opinion on gun control.
This is not the first time that the City Council has passed bills to ban certain styles of weapons in Pittsburgh. In 1993, a measure to ban assault weapons was rejected by state legislators in Harrisburg. However, O’Connor believes that the debate on stricter gun laws has changed dramatically and the council listened to the critics and drafted the new bills to be less restrictive.
Pittsburgh has a home rule charter, which means that Pittsburgh does not have to go to the State Legislature to ask permission to take certain actions. Home rule allows the City to do anything that is not expressly forbidden by the Constitution or state law. Pennsylvania law does state that a municipality “shall not enact any ordinance or take any other action dealing with the regulation of the transfer, ownership, transportation or possession of firearms,” and the firearms code has an amendment that expressly prohibits municipalities from regulating the “lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components.” Pittsburgh officials reason they have found a workaround by prohibiting the “use” of such weapons, not “possession.”
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh commented that only the state legislature can grant cities and municipalities the right to regulate firearms and in order for the ban to hold up in court the city will have to show that the bills are different from any other attempt to regulate firearms that the state has previously prohibited. Pittsburgh’s new ordinance symbolizes the city’s attempt to try and make a change. “They don’t want to just say, ‘Nothing is possible,’” Harris says. “They’re willing to try and have the fight.”
And a fight they will have, because at the moment, the ban is on hold. Several local gun owners, the Firearm Owners Against Crime, and the Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League have sued to prevent the city from enforcing the ban. “We have decided that we will not enforce the bill, but instead let the courts decide whether they pass the legal hurdles,” stated Mayor Peduto.
It is anticipated that the oral arguments will be scheduled in September or October and decisions will be made before the end of 2019.