Updated 11:37 a.m. Jan. 25
Supporters of Pittsburgh’s push for local gun control urged City Council to press on despite potential legal consequences, while opponents vowed to fight the legislation in an impassioned and occasionally strident four-hour public hearing on Thursday.
Carolyn Ban, a Dor Hadash congregant and member of the new Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence group, was the first to testify before council members. In tearful testimony, Ban said local governments must wage the fight for gun control absent state or federal action on the issue.
“In the face of this attack, we have come together to say enough. No more mass murder. It is time for the U.S. to get serious about reducing gun violence. […] And it’s necessary to start at the local level to stand up against the scourge of weapons and extraordinarily high levels of gun violence in our society and our city,” said Ban, one of the hundreds who gathered in the City-County Building’s lobby for the hearing.
Dor Hadash is one of the three congregations that met at the Tree of Life synagogue, the site of the Oct. 27 mass shooting that left 11 dead and which led to hate crime charges being filed against 46-year-old Robert Bowers of Baldwin Borough. Authorities say Bowers walked into the synagogue that morning carrying an AR-15, two handguns and harboring a deep-seated hatred of Jews.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and members of City Council pointed to the shooting in unveiling their gun control proposals in December. The proposals include a ban on assault weapons, a ban on bump stocks and large-capacity magazines, and would allow courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person considered an “extreme risk” for committing gun violence. The ban on “assault weapons” would apply to semi-automatic firearms like the AR-15.
George Kniss, a Vietnam vet, said he was one of the first people to use the AR-15 in a military setting after its creation. He testified during the public hearing that he knows the weapon well and favors restrictions on it.
“This military firearm is specifically designed for killing and maiming people to take soldiers off the battlefield. It is not designed for hunting. It is not designed for personal protection,” said Kniss, a Pittsburgh resident.
Opponents of the legislation were also present and numerous, often cheering for those who addressed council critically and who challenged the legality and practicality of the legislation proposed. Occasional outbursts from those waiting in line prompted Council President Bruce Kraus to repeatedly threaten disruptors with removal.
Gun rights activists who were present at a protest against the proposals earlier this month live-streamed or videotaped Thursday’s proceedings. Two men stood steps from the podium throughout with the screens of their cellphones facing council members and displaying phrases like “liberalism is communism,” “gun control is communism,” and “you’re all going to jail.”
For the most part, people listened attentively and patiently. Ultimately, Department of Public Safety spokesperson Chris Togneri said there were no incidents or arrests.
By 8 p.m., the line and crowd had thinned but remained more than 100 people in size. One speaker after another took a turn at the podium.
Milton Rump of Carrick said he opposes the proposals, doesn’t think they’ll improve safety and does think they’ll needlessly cost taxpayers money and ultimately fail upon legal review.
“These bills are a futile attempt at gun control by local government,” Rump said, citing a state preemption law that prohibits municipalities from enacting their own gun restrictions.
Another opponent of the legislation, Val Finnell of Kennedy Twp., a retired Air Force member, told council, “I didn’t serve 20 years to come home and have politicians trash the Bill of Rights.” Finnell presented a petition — one he said had gathered more than 8,000 signatures — calling for council to withdraw the bills or face criminal charges. Council previously decided to allow non-residents of the city to speak at the hearing, as well as constituents.
Justin Dillon of Erie organized the protest against the bills that took place outside City Hall earlier this month. He returned to address council Thursday, arguing the stakes are high for non-residents, too.
“If [this legislation] does by some miracle get passed, it’s also going to affect me,” Dillon said. “If each and every municipality in Pennsylvania decides to enact their own ordinances or laws — it’s absurd.”
Gun rights advocates have seized on this point, arguing they fear law-abiding gun owners will be unwittingly ensnared in a patchwork of regulations that vary between municipalities across Pennsylvania. But perhaps more palpable is the fear that if Pittsburgh succeeds in its push for local gun control, a flood of municipalities would follow suit. Pittsburgh officials have said this is exactly the point.
Councilmember Corey O’Connor said based on tonight’s testimony he’s concerned the legislation has been misinterpreted or misconstrued by opponents.
“From what we heard tonight, we have to get the message out that we’re not taking away guns that you can defend yourself with. […] We’re not touching your handguns. Also, if you’re a military officer or police officer, and you’re using certain weapons for training, that’s a different story.”
O’Connor added that amendments might be needed to help clarify the legislative scope. He said he still expects the bills to be formally adopted by council sometime next month.
Thursday’s testimony also included gripping first-person accounts of gun violence both from those, like Ban, calling for greater gun controls and those arguing against them, the latter believing it will impact their capacity for self-defense.
“My father was murdered,” said Walter Gibson of North Versailles. “My father was not there for my first day of school. My father was not there to see me graduate. My father wasn’t there to see me go to college, get married, to watch his grandchildren come into this world. And the fault for that does not lie with the firearm. It lies with the coward who shot my father from behind.” Gibson said he works in the City of Pittsburgh and opposes the legislation now being considered by council.
Peduto and members of council have said they feel duty-bound as public servants to work to prevent all forms of gun violence in the city. Peduto is in Washington, D.C., this week for the Winter Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. According to a public schedule released by his office, he will be speaking on two panels focused on gun violence in America and the legislative responses undertaken in cities like Pittsburgh.
In the weeks since Pittsburgh unveiled its trio of gun control proposals, the measures have prompted a large-scale protest by gun rights advocates outside City Hall, threats of lawsuits, a war of words between the mayor and Allegheny County’s district attorney, and emotional pleas from gun violence victims and still-traumatized members of this city months after the mass shooting at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue.
Critics and legal experts, meanwhile, say the legislation violates Pennsylvania law, which prohibits municipalities from passing “any ordinance … dealing with the regulation of the transfer, ownership, transportation or possession of firearms.”
Critics say the legislation is therefore illegal and unable to be lawfully enforced.
Council members Darlene Harris and Teresa Kail-Smith, initially listed as co-sponsors of the bills with all other council members, pulled their names soon after the legislation was introduced, saying they wanted to hear more from their constituents and wanted to do more research on the pertinent legal issues.
After Thursday’s hearing, Kail-Smith said she still has questions about enforcement mechanisms in the bills, the legislation’s likely effectiveness and the due process implications for those individuals deemed an “extreme risk” for committing gun violence.
Kail-Smith added of her reservations, “In some way I also feel like we’re exploiting this issue for political gain.”
Pittsburgh officials have said they are willing to defend the legislation in the face of any legal challenge. Officials have said they hope to have the measures formally adopted by Feb. 14, the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
But given the intensity of public opinion around this issue and the sensitivities involved, officials decided to first convene a public hearing on the proposals. The controversy followed.
While the date of Thursday’s hearing was announced weeks ago, arrangements and details were still being hammered out with hours left to go.
Originally set to be located in council chambers, the hearing was moved to the lobby of the City-County Building due to the high number of expected attendees. The move was only announced a day prior. The change of venue prompted Council Member Harris to raise concerns about accommodations.
It also prompted a critical letter to council members from Joshua Prince, an attorney with the Firearms Industry Consulting Group. In his letter, Prince calls the hearing’s relocation an attempt to stifle participation by opponents of the legislation and an attempt to prevent the hearing from being televised.
“As the sole purpose of moving the Public Hearing from the Chamber to the lobby seems to be designed to suppress the voices of those wishing to be heard, while precluding the public from being able to watch the Public Hearing, we are demanding that the Public Hearing take place in the Chamber,” Prince wrote.
(The hearing was recorded and will be broadcast on the city network in the coming days, Kraus said.)
Prince represents The Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League and Firearm Owners Against Crime, two groups that have promised to sue if Pittsburgh’s gun control ordinances pass.
In a phone call with The Incline on Wednesday, Prince called the public hearing a charade, saying council members wouldn’t be swayed by arguments against the legislation and were simply going through the motions. Prince argued the outcome was predetermined.
He also reiterated his promise to sue the city over the legislation if and when it’s adopted.
In short, the vociferous public debate that filled the City-County Building’s cavernous lobby on Thursday is likely far from over.