Tree of Life massacre

Pittsburgh wants to build a coalition to take on the gun lobby. Who will join?

Support isn’t guaranteed, even in the city’s own backyard.

Mayor Bill Peduto, flanked by Moms Demand Action members, announces gun legislation on Dec. 14, 2018.

Mayor Bill Peduto, flanked by Moms Demand Action members, announces gun legislation on Dec. 14, 2018.

Gov. Tom Wolf / Flickr

In 2018, three people were killed with firearms in the city of Duquesne, including 15-year-old Daevion Raines, who was gunned down in a vehicle in June. Another seven assaults by firearm were reported last year.

Mayor Nickole Nesby knows her city of 5,544, just southeast of Pittsburgh, faces “more than normal gun violence,” and she wants to see that change.

That’s why Nesby plans to introduce legislation modeled off Pittsburgh’s, which would ban assault weapons, prohibit high-capacity magazines, and allow courts to temporarily take guns from people deemed an “extreme risk.”

Mayor Bill Peduto, flanked by state and city lawmakers, announced in December the plan to pass local gun laws — Harrisburg be damned. Pennsylvania law prohibits municipalities from passing local regulations on firearms, and gun groups are already threatening lawsuits.

Seven weeks before the announcement, a man with an AR-15 and three handguns killed 11 people inside a Squirrel Hill synagogue during morning services. The tragedy at Tree of Life added Pittsburgh to a growing list of American cities touched by mass violence, and Peduto made it clear that the city was not planning to take on the gun lobby alone.

“It will be throughout this country and this state that we’ll fight that fight,” he said.

Council member Corey O’Connor said at the time his office had reached out to all 53 third-class cities in Pennsylvania with copies of the legislation in hopes they’d join the effort. “Those around Pittsburgh and Philly have been the most receptive,” his chief of staff told The Incline in mid-December.

O’Connor’s office started with third-class cities — those with a population of under 250,000 — as more than a dozen had previously enacted laws requiring the reporting of lost and stolen firearms. Many of those cities, including Duquesne, abandoned those ordinances after the state made it easier to sue municipalities in 2015. That state law was overturned on a technicality.

Nesby said the new gun bills will be introduced during the first session of the year. And although groups like the NRA are already threatening legal action, she isn’t concerned about a lawsuit.

“If the people want sensible gun legislation, then the people should have it,” she said.

The importance of coalition building

In California, ammunition record-keeping requirements adopted by Sacramento and Los Angeles were credited with helping to bring about similar legislation at the state level in 2016.

Three years earlier, a coalition of more than 800 local leaders under the Mayors Against Illegal Guns banner endorsed then-President Barack Obama’s gun-reform proposals in an attempt to nudge congressional action on the issue. Peduto is a member of the group.

It isn’t new for local governments to take issues like gun control into their own hands, and as California proved — although with a far more Democratic state legislature than Pennsylvania’s — legislative pushes by municipal governments can bear fruit at higher levels of government, too.

Of course, those same local pushes are sometimes challenged by opponents citing overreach and state preemption clauses.

Jud Mathews, an associate professor of law at Penn State University, explained state law in Pennsylvania prohibits — or preempts — attempts by municipalities like Pittsburgh to enact their own firearms regulations. Only the state can impose new or heightened gun controls as the law currently stands.

“What they would need to be able to actually pass local gun control in Pittsburgh would be to get the General Assembly to change provisions of the state law that bar municipalities from regulating gun use,” Mathews explained.

State Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat who represents Squirrel Hill, has introduced a bill to do just that, although the measure will face a chilly reception at the capitol. The bill has seven Democratic co-sponsors thus far.

But Mathews acknowledged that there may be political strength in numbers as well as in the pursuit of such legislation despite the odds or outright proscriptions.

“Having more cities on board with something like this doesn’t change state law, but it might change the political dynamics if you can show that local governments across the state want to make the decision for themselves, and maybe it moves the needle and puts pressure on the state legislature to make a change.”

Mathews said the broader the coalition the better.

“I would imagine it’s important to also have cities of different sizes and smaller communities represented as well,” he said. “That might make it appear that it’s not just a question of big cities versus the rest of the state.”

This type of coalition building is exactly what Peduto described in announcing Pittsburgh’s firearms proposals on Dec. 14. But support isn’t guaranteed — even in the city’s backyard.

Gov. Tom Wolf, center, walks with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald

Gov. Tom Wolf, center, walks with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald

LEXI BELCULFINE / THE INCLINE

Counting on the county?

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald supports Pittsburgh’s efforts and believes “this is an important conversation to have,” his spokesperson Amie Downs said via email.

“While [Fitzgerald] realizes there is an existing preemption,” Downs said, “he also knows from experience that challenging that, or having those conversations, can sometimes move the needle for those who do have the power to address these issues.”

Downs pointed to Fitzgerald’s push to impose an indoor smoking ban in Allegheny County more than a decade ago. The county was sued by two business owners, who said state law preempted municipalities like Allegheny County from passing their own smoking bans. The suit became moot when the legislature passed a statewide ban with some exemptions.

“The ensuing lawsuit and conversation spurred the same in Harrisburg,” Downs said, “and the sponsor of the legislation in the General Assembly referenced the actions by the county as being the impetus to move legislation at the state level.”

But while Fitzgerald supports the city’s current effort on the gun reform front, he stopped short of endorsing the same push at the county level. It’s not even clear county governments *can* pass something similar.

Allegheny is one a handful of commonwealth counties that has a home rule charter, which allows for greater self-determination. Gun reform is a strange gray area, however, as state law prohibits any “county, municipality or township” from regulating firearms.

If everyone is forbidden from doing it, then theoretically anyone could join the resistance.

O’Connor’s office said it will reach out to county governments, but members of Allegheny County’s council who spoke to The Incline are either opposed to gun reform or aren’t optimistic about its chances.

Republican Council members Sam DeMarco and Sue Means both told The Incline they oppose Pittsburgh’s gun bills and would be against any efforts to do something similar at the county level. Both said many of their colleagues (who did not respond to request for comment) feel the same way.

Anita Prizio, a first-term Democrat, said while she hasn’t had a chance to read the city’s gun control proposals, she supports its intent. Still, she doesn’t think something similar could pass at the county-level. “Probably not with the mix we currently have on council,” she said. “We’re not as progressive as the city.”

As some county council members pointed out, Pittsburgh’s on more-than-shaky ground legally. DeMarco, who is a member of the pro-gun Firearms Owners Against Crime, said he would support anyone who brought a lawsuit.

Frankel’s bill in the state House would fix the legal issue, but support is unlikely to come from a majority of members — or even the entire Allegheny County delegation. In fact, several returning Democrats from the area — Frank Dermody, Bill Kortz, Anita Kulik, Robert Matzie, and Harry Readshaw — voted for an ultimately unsuccessful bill that would make it easier for groups like the NRA to sue municipalities that pass local gun laws.

“Rep. Dermody expects a lot more discussion of the topic in the new session and is listening to all views,” the House minority leader’s spokesperson said. “He will review specific proposals as they arise but if the question is the same as it was the last time he would vote the same way.”

Gov. Wolf’s spokesperson said he would veto any legislation that makes it easier to sue localities in Pennsylvania.

Council member Erika Strassburger, Gov. Tom Wolf, and Mayor Bill Peduto arrive at the unveiling of Pittsburgh's local-level gun-control proposals in December, 2018.

Council member Erika Strassburger, Gov. Tom Wolf, and Mayor Bill Peduto

Gov. Tom Wolf / Flickr

Friends in Philadelphia

This isn’t the first time Pittsburgh has attempted to pass local gun laws.

In 1993, both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh’s city councils passed a ban on assault weapons. The General Assembly responded by amending state law to specifically assert “no county, municipality or township may in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms.” Democratic Rep. Tony DeLuca, who still represents part of Allegheny County, co-sponsored the legislation.

Philadelphia tried again in 2008, when now City Council President Darrell Clarke pushed a package of gun reform bills to essentially provoke a legal battle with the state. He lost, but his spokesperson said he still believes the preemption statute is unconstitutional.

“He will continue to advocate for local authority to restrict gun sales and ownership, and for badly overdue state legislation, as he does every year,” the spokesperson said. “He is hopeful that the influx of new state lawmakers who’ve demonstrated similar willingness to stand up to the gun lobby, along with the impressively effective advocacy of organizations like Moms Demand Action, will result in meaningful change to Pennsylvania’s outdated and weak gun laws in 2019.”

Clarke’s spokesperson said he “would absolutely be receptive to discussions with his counterparts in Pittsburgh about gun violence prevention and deterrence.” Discussions are already underway with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s office.

“We are reviewing the legislation and having discussions with both our Law Department and Pittsburgh’s lawyers,” a spokesperson for Kenney said in December. “Philadelphia completely supports the concept of local control of gun laws, and has been fighting for over a decade on the subject. We will continue to push to keep Philadelphians safe and take whatever legislative steps we need to make that a reality.”