Tree of Life massacre

Pittsburgh wants to pass gun control. This Pa. legislation could make it possible.

The proposal is from Rep. Dan Frankel, who represents Squirrel Hill.

A man visits a memorial outside of the Tree of Life on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018.

A man visits a memorial outside of the Tree of Life on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018.

Cara Owsley / USA TODAY Network
Sarah Anne Hughes

Update, 12:30 p.m.

In the wake of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, Pittsburgh officials want tougher gun laws. The problem won’t be political will in a city deeply shaken by tragedy, but Harrisburg.

Under the state’s Home Rule law and Uniform Firearms Act, municipalities like Pittsburgh are prevented from passing “any ordinance … dealing with the regulation of the transfer, ownership, transportation or possession of firearms.”

Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat who represents Squirrel Hill, wants to change that.

Frankel on Wednesday released a co-sponsorship memo to gather support for bills that would “expand the ability of local governments to respond to mass shootings, terror attacks and on-going violence within their municipal borders.” The legislation would do that by amending state law “to expressly permit the ability for local governments to adopt ordinances that create more secure communities and prevent future massacres within their municipal boundaries.”

In October, 11 Jews attending morning services at Tree of Life in Squirrel Hill were gunned down. Robert Bowers, 46, of Baldwin was charged and pleaded not guilty.

Officials are expected to unveil a complete legislative package Friday, the sixth anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Frankel’s proposal follows a plea from Mayor Bill Peduto to leaders of more than 60 other cities that have been affected by gun violence.

“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,” Peduto wrote. “It is time to come together to take on the gun manufacturing lobbyists, and to increase our commitment at a local level to challenge the system of laws that encourage massacres and take the lives of our friends and family every single day in the United States of America.”

Peduto asked other cities to join Pittsburgh in introducing “legislation to ban assault weapons, certain firearm accessories and ammunition, and remove firearms from the hands of those that are proven in a court of law to be an extreme risk.”

In the hands of Harrisburg

Whether Frankel’s bill can gain enough political support in the conservative General Assembly to pass remains unseen, but past gun control efforts show just how hard a lift it will be. The legislature did pass a bill last session that limits access to firearms in domestic abuse cases. Frankel called it the first meaningful piece of gun control to pass during his 20 years in the House.

“I sense some movement,” Frankel previously told The Incline of gun legislation. “Maybe there is a path forward.”

If Pittsburgh passes gun control measures with the state’s preemption laws still in place, it could be sued. The National Rifle Association did just that in 2015, but was ultimately stymied after the Pa. Supreme Court struck down a law that made such lawsuits possible.

Last session, lawmakers again tried to make it easier for gun owners and the groups that support them to sue municipalities that pass gun measures that exceed state law. A bill introduced by Republican Rep. Mark Keller was passed by the full House 134-53, but did not move in the Senate. Several Democratic representatives from Allegheny County voted in favor of the bill, including five who will return this session: Frank Dermody, Bill Kortz, Anita Kulik, Robert Matzie, and Harry Readshaw.

Pittsburgh City Council members seem prepared for the possibility of a legal battle.

Explore other Tree of Life massacre stories.

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