Updated 4:22 p.m.
Heavily armed protesters from around the state and beyond rallied in Downtown Pittsburgh on Monday against local-level gun control regulations currently being considered by Pittsburgh City Council.
Hundreds attended in a show of solidarity against legislation that confronts head-on a statewide ban on municipal regulation of firearms. The open carry protest began at noon outside the City-County Building on Grant Street and lasted just over an hour.
Beforehand, protestors listened to patriotic music from John Philip Sousa and classic rock while waving flags and hoisting signs challenging the advisability and constitutionality of the city’s proposal.
The legislation includes a proposed ban on assault weapons in Pittsburgh, a prohibition on bump stocks and large capacity magazines, and would allow the courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person deemed an “extreme risk.” A public hearing on the proposals is set for Jan. 24.
Critics call the measures both unconstitutional and unlikely to be effective. Supporters say the legislation, which was inspired by the Oct. 27 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, is a necessary and overdue step in preventing gun violence here.
Monday’s rally began with a moment of silence for the 11 people killed at Tree of Life. Across the street, a small band of counter-protesters played Hebrew songs within earshot.
Speakers at the “open carry rally,” as it was billed, called the city’s proposed legislation illegal and an infringement on Second Amendment rights. They promised to sue if the bills are adopted.
Protest organizer and speaker Justin Dillon pointed to his past legal victory against the City of Erie’s ban on guns in public parks in vowing legal action against Pittsburgh.
“If the mayor and city council decide to pass this [legislation], I’ll see you in court and you can be win two in my win column,” Dillon said, prompting a loud round of applause from the crowd. Attendees chanted “We will not comply” throughout the day, held signs bearing those words and used the #WeWillNotComply hashtag on social media.
Many protesters expressed deep-seated suspicion of government officials and forces and cited the oft-repeated line about an armed citizenry being the best defense against tyranny.
Asked if guns like the AR-15 were necessary to that goal, Ken Alt of Scottdale, Pa., said he feels they are.
“If the government comes after you, they’re not coming after you with a little .38 or .22, they’re coming after you with everything they have in their arsenal,” Alt said.
Legislators in Pittsburgh and beyond have focused on guns like the AR-15 both for their heightened lethality and prominent role in mass shootings, including that at the Tree of Life synagogue.
But Alt acknowledged that this isn’t about the AR-15 or its practicality, per se, as much as it’s about the belief that AR-15s would be just the first chip to fall in a broader scale-back of Americans’ right to bear arms.
“It is one domino and the next will be this or that because they were successful,” Alt said. “You know, you really can’t let anybody get their foot in the door in that respect.”
And critics of Pittsburgh’s gun control proposals don’t plan to. Lawsuits were threatened even before the proposals had even been officially unveiled, and those threats have continued in the weeks since.
Pittsburgh public safety officials and even organizers of Monday’s rally were unsure of what to expect in terms of attendance.
Speaking to a crowd of hundreds of protesters, possibly more, Dillon said, “We thought 30 or 40 people were gonna show up today and I think we crushed those numbers.” An official crowd estimate was not immediately available.
Other speakers stressed the turnout and the distances traveled by many in attendance as proof that the relevancy of this local-level legislation has quickly transcended municipal boundaries. The same holds true for the legislation’s political significance outside of Pittsburgh.
Republican state Rep. Aaron Bernstine, who represents the 10th state legislative district in Beaver County, Butler County and Lawrence County, was among the speakers at Monday’s rally and told the crowd: “I’m a member of the General Assembly of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and this mayor, his council, and the district attorney are breaking the law. The state has specifically stated that the City of Pittsburgh has no authority — none — to pass these ordinances, and that’s why we’re here today.”
Dillon also urged protesters to show up at a public hearing slated for Pittsburgh’s proposed gun legislation later this month and to show up when council votes on the measure, likely in the coming weeks.
Protesters indicated they would.
One protester who identified himself only as Brent from Aliquippa said he came to Monday’s open carry rally “to support the Second Amendment,” adding, “Without the Second Amendment we have nothing.”
Protester Dan Markiewicz of Derry, Pa., is a Vietnam War vet and former prison guard who views responsible gun owners as collateral damage in the city’s push to prevent gun violence. Markiewicz carried two handguns on his hip at the rally and said he does so often. (Gun owners are not required to have a license to openly carry a firearm in Pennsylvania, except in Philadelphia. A license is required for concealed carry.)
“I don’t ever want to shoot anyone again,” Markiewicz said, referring to his military service. “I heard councilman Corey O’Connor on TV saying ‘I cant possibly think of a good reason that anyone needs an AR-15,’ and there’s a good meme on the internet that says ‘why do you need an AR-15?’ and the answer is ‘fuck you, that’s my business.'”
Markiewicz added, “And if these laws were in effect, this tragedy [Tree of Life] still would have happened.”
Accused Tree of Life gunman Robert Bowers didn’t live in the city and instead lived in nearby Baldwin borough, Markiewicz pointed out.
“This is just a little chip, a little step,” he said of the city’s proposals. “They’ve been doing it for 30 years … the Second Amendment wasn’t written because the deer were coming. They knew you can’t trust government.”
Asked if he felt people needed guns like the AR-15, Markiewicz said, “I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”
Markiewicz added: “We had a saying in the prison: I’d rather be tried by 12 than carried by six.”
Suzy Meyers of the North Shore, an NRA instructor and author, held a sign that identified her as a “Home defender” and said “when it comes to defending my home and my family, I want multiple options.”
But Meyers said she’s concerned about the Pittsburgh proposals as much for their Second Amendment implications as for those involving 14th Amendment rights to due process.
“If you can call somebody crazy and have them committed and have their firearms taken away, that’s a very biased process,” Meyers said. “Where are you going to find an unbiased clinician?”
Several protesters who spoke with The Incline declined to provide their full names, one explaining that he wanted to avoid being targeted online or in person for his pro-gun stance.
Other protestors, at least one from the neighboring state of Ohio, argued that passing laws like those being pursued in Pittsburgh won’t prevent shootings. Pressed on how legislators should respond to public safety risks posed by guns or to mass shootings like that at Tree of Life, the protesters pointed to the criminal justice system and suggested deterrents like the one proposed by President Donald Trump in the hours after the mass shooting in Squirrel Hill.
“When people do this they should get the death penalty,” Trump said at the time. “And they shouldn’t have to wait years and years. … And, I think they should very much bring the death penalty into vogue.”
Researchers say decades of research has failed to prove the extent to which the death penalty prevents crimes and violence.
With today’s protest, Pittsburgh has officially become the latest flashpoint in a nationwide push for firearms regulations prompted in large part by a string of high-profile mass shootings across the country.
This push has seen municipalities pursuing local-level firearms restrictions in lieu of state action on the issue and states pursuing state-level restrictions in lieu of federal action on the issue. Pro-gun advocates and the gun lobby both fear a large-scale erosion of Second Amendment rights as a result.
In Pittsburgh, protest organizers and speakers stressed the precarious legal standing of Pittsburgh’s legislative proposals.
“The main point of this rally is the fact that it is against state law for local municipalities to enact their own gun control,” protest organizer Justin Crocker said via email. “Preemption exists to protect citizens from a patchwork of thousands of different laws that could find them in legal jeopardy by simply crossing a city border.”
In an email sent to The Incline an hour after Monday’s protest ended, mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty said, “The gun violence killing innocent people across the country, including 11 peacefully worshiping at Tree of Life in Squirrel Hill in October, has become a public health epidemic. The few regulatory efforts proposed by Mayor Peduto and City Council are simply common sense measures meant to take the epidemic head-on.”
Peduto did not interact with protesters Monday but McNulty said he did. “About 15 of them entered the building after the rally, left their firearms with security (as is longstanding protocol) and came to the mayor’s office to request a meeting with him. He was not here so I met with them to hear their concerns.”
McNulty said the protesters were accompanied by a crew from Alex Jones’ Infowars site.
Protest organizers also sought to address the potent symbolism of the Tree of Life killings — or “counter the mayor’s message coming from the tree of life synagogue shooting,” per planning emails provided to The Incline — by enlisting the group Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership in today’s rally. In an Oct. 28 blog post, the JPFO called the Tree of Life killings “murders, not shootings.”
A statement from the Bellevue, Wash.-based group, which was provided to The Incline by an organizer of today’s protest and read loud during the event, says of Pittsburgh’s proposed gun control measures: “It is disheartening that some of our countrymen-elected officials included-have been misguided into falsely believing that by weakening, disarming or making innocent people vulnerable we will somehow stop crime or forestall the actions of sociopaths. Nothing could be further from the truth, and today’s assembly is determined to get this important message across …”
Supporters of tougher gun controls in the U.S. often point to Australia, where stringent gun control laws adopted after a 1996 massacre have been credited with preventing 16 mass shootings in the two decades since, NBC News reports.
Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety spokesperson Chris Togneri reported no arrests or incidents in connection with Monday’s rally. One lane of Grant Street was briefly blocked to accommodate the crowd, but a full closure of Grant was unnecessary, Togneri added.
See more from today’s protest: