Tree of Life massacre

Here’s how Pittsburgh is amending its controversial gun control push

Council wants to address concerns from mental health professionals and gun owners, too.

Attorney George Cass of Fox Chapel (at left) gets into a heated conversation with gun supporter Pete, who refused to provide his last name of Washington, Pa. area, asking Pete to "just think about humanity" during the gun rally held at Pittsburgh's City-Council Building.

Attorney George Cass of Fox Chapel (at left) gets into a heated conversation with gun supporter Pete, who refused to provide his last name of Washington, Pa. area, asking Pete to "just think about humanity" during the gun rally held at Pittsburgh's City-Council Building.

Erica Dietz / For The Incline
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Amendments are in the works that would clarify contentious gun control legislation before Pittsburgh City Council, addressing concerns from mental health professionals and gun owners and better guarding the bills against a legal challenge that’s all but certain to come if and when they’re passed, council members said.

The legislation proposed weeks after October’s mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue would ban certain semi-automatic firearms or “assault weapons,” prohibit bump stocks and large capacity magazines, and allow the courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person deemed an “extreme risk.”

The trio of bills garnered immediate pushback from gun-rights advocates concerned about the broader implications for gun ownership in the commonwealth and beyond. But they also prompted concerns from mental health professionals who relayed to council members their belief that the wording of the bills could reinforce dangerous and ultimately erroneous stigmas around mental health issues and gun violence.

“There were some concerns, mostly from the mental health and disability rights communities,” District 8 council member Erika Strassburger said by phone, “so we’re putting a finer point on a few definitions.”

Extreme Risk Protection Orders

One amendment under consideration would clarify who can petition a court for an “Extreme Risk Protection Order” against another individual. Originally, the bill listed law enforcement officers and “family or household members” as eligible to seek the emergency ruling from a court of law. If granted, the ERPO requires an individual surrender their firearms or have them confiscated by authorities.

But Strassburger said the term “family members” was deemed too broad and potentially problematic. Through the amendment process, Strassburger said the circle of eligible “family members” would be made more immediate, extending only to an individual’s parents, siblings or children, “to make sure it’s not some distant cousin.”

Spouses would still be eligible to seek ERPOs and are covered elsewhere in the legislation.

The amendment process is also looking at excluding individuals with PFAs and other types of restraining orders against them as eligible ERPO petitioners. “The argument is that if there’s an active PFA against you, and you’re using this as a form of retribution, that would be dangerous,” Strassburger said.

Strassburger, a Democrat who ran for office as an independent and whose district includes Squirrel Hill, where the Tree of Life mass shooting took place, said ERPOs could help prevent similar acts of gun violence but are even more likely to prevent suicides by firearms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a rise in suicides involving firearms has pushed gun deaths in the U.S. to their highest rate in more than 20 years.

Additionally, Strassburger said an amendment is being considered that would remove “medically-unsupervised cessation of voluntary or consistent use of prescription medication necessary to treat a mental illness, or failure to voluntarily or consistently use prescription medication necessary to treat a mental illness” as grounds for an ERPO.

Under the existing proposal, someone who decides to stop taking medication for a mental illness could have their firearms confiscated.

But Strassburger said there were concerns about the unintended consequences of this.

“There are some medications for some individuals that are linked to suicidal tendencies and if they need to make a decision to stop taking those medications in that moment for safety reasons or for their personal wellbeing, they should be able to do that without fear of an ERPO. This is about control over their own bodies.”

From a legislative standpoint, ERPOs are complex and fraught with potential pitfalls. They remain surrounded by questions of due process and constitutionality. But mental health professionals also worry about gun control efforts that may inadvertently reinforce perceptions of the mentally ill as more likely to commit gun violence.

A University of Texas study released this month found access to firearms, not mental health status, to be the most potent factor in determining a person’s risk of committing gun violence. A book published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2016 found mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent 1 percent of all gun homicides each year.

In a New York Times fact check last year, gun violence experts said barring gun sales to people deemed dangerous by mental health providers could help prevent mass shootings. But the experts said several more measures — including banning assault weapons — would be more effective, the paper reported.

The City of Pittsburgh is trying to do that, too, and is looking at amendments that would further clarify exactly what it means by “assault weapons.”

Carolyn Ban, a Dor Hadash congregant, speaks at the Pittsburgh public hearing on proposed gun legislation.

Carolyn Ban, a Dor Hadash congregant, speaks at the Pittsburgh public hearing on proposed gun legislation.

Colin Deppen / The Incline

“Assault weapons” and concealed carry

Council member Corey O’Connor said the amendment process will also attempt to clear up confusion about the types of weapons included in this ban and the ability of individuals to lawfully carry and possess firearms in the city.

The bill proposing the ban on “assault weapons,” a term defined in the legislation, also says: “No person shall carry in any vehicle or concealed or unconcealed on or about their person except when on their land or in their abode or fixed place of business any firearm.”

But concealed carry licenses are issued by the state, and Strassburger said an amendment is being considered that would make clear that this prohibition would apply only to people without state-issued concealed carry licenses. (Open carrying of firearms is legal in Pennsylvania without a license, except in Philadelphia.)

“This bill as presented initially would have inadvertently gone further than intended and would have penalized anyone who’s carrying a concealed weapon even if they have the right to do so under state law,” she said. “We are reconciling and updating this bill to account for what’s already lawful under state law.”

The change mirrors existing state law. Asked the point then, given that symmetry, Strassburger said if state law were changed to loosen possession and concealed carry requirements, for example, this updated local measure would still be in place.

Of course, Strassburger realizes this would run headfirst into the state preemption issue again, which prohibits anyone but the state from regulating aspects of firearms ownership in Pennsylvania and which is already the basis for looming legal challenges against this trio of bills. (Read more about the state preemption issue as it relates to Pittsburgh’s gun control proposals here.)

Strassburger confirmed they’re eyeing other amendments that would make these bills more compatible with state law — and in the process more impervious to a legal challenge on state preemption grounds — but declined to offer further details.

“There are some amendments we’re not ready to talk with media about now, but we’re considering some that could affect whether it’s challenged civilly or whether it’s challenged criminally,” Strassburger said, adding, “Stay tuned.”

Councilman Corey O'Connor speaks Friday, Dec. 14 about a set of proposed local-level gun control restrictions.

Councilman Corey O'Connor speaks Friday, Dec. 14 about a set of proposed local-level gun control restrictions.

Colin Deppen / The Incline

Makes and models

As for revisions she was willing to discuss, Strassburger said amendments are also being considered to specify what the legislation means by “assault weapons,” a popular but legally nebulous term, and which firearms the proposed ban would cover.

“I’ve heard a lot of concern about the language used to describe the guns that are prohibited and also specific models, and we’re trying to specify as best as possible so that someone who believes they’re purchasing a gun that would be allowed under this bill isn’t purchasing one that isn’t allowed,” Strassburger said, explaining, “if there’s a gun that doesn’t meet any of the standards [of the ban] except that it takes a high-capacity magazine, and they [the buyer] don’t know it could accept a high-capacity magazine — we’re just trying to make sure the models referenced are the right ones and that the description isn’t overly broad.”

As it currently stands, the proposed assault weapons ban lists dozens of makes and models of semi-automatic firearms, including the Colt AR-15 used by accused Tree of Life gunman Robert Bowers.

O’Connor said the amendments are also an attempt to counter a perception that the bills would ban guns in the city outright. He says that’s not the case.

“We’re looking at specific weapons and there are a lot of exemptions in the bill, and people are grandfathered in,” O’Connor said. “Some people believe you can’t own any weapon anywhere, and that’s not the case under these bills.”

O’Connor has no illusions that these amendments and changes will appease the legislation’s most ardent foes. It’s unclear, meanwhile, how far the amendments will go in appeasing the critics and skeptics on council.

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

A council majority

The proposals bear the names of seven of council’s nine members — O’Connor and Strassburger, who are leading the amendment process, as well as President Bruce Kraus, Rev. Ricky Burgess, Anthony Coghill, Deborah Gross and R. Daniel Lavelle.  All council members are Democrats.

Two other council members — the North Side’s Darlene Harris and Theresa Kail-Smith, who represents the West End — have expressed reservations about the legislation along with questions about the legality, costs and methods of enforcement. (Mayor Bill Peduto’s office said the city has received offers of pro bono legal assistance in defending the bills against a legal challenge.)

Harris and Kail-Smith both withdrew as sponsors of the gun bills in December, soon after the measures were first proposed.

After an hours-long and impassioned public hearing on Jan. 24, Kail-Smith said she remained concerned about the due process implications of the ERPO bill and sensitive to concerns about the constitutionality of the legislative package overall.

“If people don’t trust their local officials to uphold the Constitution, then we have an issue,” she said.

But Kail-Smith said her support wasn’t precluded by this, saying she wanted to gather more research on the issue and was waiting for a post-agenda hearing with experts before making a decision. That post-agenda hearing, called by Harris, is now scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 12 in council chambers, per Harris’ office.

“My mind is definitely not made up,” Kail-Smith added. Repeated attempts to reach Harris for comment were unsuccessful.

O’Connor is clear that the bills have the support of a majority on council and are likely to be voted through. The mayor has said he will sign them.

Strassburger, meanwhile, said she feels strongly about taking the time to make the vote unanimous and the front fully unified.

“I come from the position that council is strongest when all nine members speak as one voice, and it would be ideal to get all nine on board, and that’s my goal,” Strassburger said, adding that she hopes the ongoing amendment process will help achieve that.

O’Connor hopes the legislation will be adopted by the end of this month. He initially hoped to hold the vote in time for the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14.

If the amendments are introduced this coming week, Strassburger said a vote on final passage could be held as soon as Feb. 19. But she stressed due diligence as the most pressing consideration.

“It’s more important to get it right.”