In defiance of Harrisburg, Pittsburgh passed its own gun control laws. What happens next?

A memorial to the victims of the Tree of Life massacre outside the synagogue. (daveynin/Flickr)

Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday gave final approval to three gun control bills introduced following the October massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue.

With Mayor Bill Peduto committed to signing the package, the Western Pennsylvania city is embarking on territory at once familiar and untrodden as it takes the regulation of firearms into its own hands.

The bills passed with six “yes” votes as well as three “nos” from members concerned about possible legal challenges and issues of preemption in Harrisburg. Pittsburgh already knows a thing or two about that.

In 1993, the city as well as Philadelphia banned assault-style weapons. The Legislature responded the following year by amending the state’s Uniform Firearms Act to prevent the municipal passage of any ordinance “dealing with the regulation of the transfer, ownership, transportation, or possession of firearms.”

“If we were the state and the federal government, we could vote on these,” Council member Darlene Harris, a conservative Democrat, said before Tuesday’s vote. “All it’s gonna bring us is lawsuits.”

READ MORE: What’s stopping municipal gun control laws across Pennsylvania? Costly lawsuits, for starters.

She may be correct on that point.

On Tuesday, the National Rifle Association announced that Pittsburgh residents planned to file suit in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas challenging one piece of passed legislation.

Joshua Prince, an attorney representing the Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League and Firearm Owners Against Crime, also told the Capital-Star if any proposals “involving firearms or ammunition” are enacted, his clients will file suit.

Exactly how any legal challenges will play out is unclear, as Council significantly altered two proposals in ways that could avoid Harrisburg’s wrath.

One bill originally proposed to ban ownership of assault-style weapons, while another did the same for “large capacity” magazines.

Both of those provisions remain in bills passed Tuesday, with a major caveat: The ordinances do not take effect until the General Assembly or state Supreme Court takes action that “has the effect of authorizing … implementation and enforcement.”

Pittsburgh’s previous attempt to ban assault weapons outright was struck down in 1996 when the state Supreme Court sided with the Legislature.

Pittsburgh’s legislation does, 60 days after enactment, ban the “use” of such weapons and magazines in public places. The latter is the provision targeted by city residents and the NRA in the lawsuit filed Tuesday.

According to an NRA press release, the residents plan to “[challenge] the city’s ban on publicly carrying loaded magazines that accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition.” The group originally said the suit was filed Tuesday, but later told PublicSource it won’t be filed until Peduto signs the bill. 

The bill approved Tuesday that regulates magazine use does not contain the exact language used by the NRA. Instead, it prohibits the discharge, installation, or display of magazines of that size with a firearm in public places.

Council member Corey O’Connor, who represents part of the neighborhood where the massacre took place, said supporters took a step back after the bills’ introduction and looked at how the city could regulate “use” of firearms within state law.

He believes the result is “creative” enough to pass muster. If he’s right, O’Connor anticipates that “other municipalities will follow us” — “a huge change not just in Pittsburgh but across the state.”

Peduto plans to sign the bills, although there is no set timeline for him to do so, his spokesperson said.

“I realize that there will be those that will challenge this legally. We have been provided pro bono legal assistance,” the mayor told TribLive in late March. “There will be no cost to taxpayers for that challenge, and we look forward to it.”

Peduto’s spokesperson said the city is not yet releasing the names of the attorneys or firms who have committed their services. O’Connor said a Pittsburgh firm has agreed to defend him at no charge.

‘Nobody’s done this before’

The third gun control bill passed by Pittsburgh City Council deals with extreme risk protection orders.

Better known as a red flag law, the legislation allows a law enforcement officer or family member to petition the Pittsburgh Municipal Court to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person at risk of harming himself or others.

The bill goes into effect 180 days after being signed.

Shira Goodman, executive director of the gun control advocacy group CeaseFirePA, said the measure represents uncharted waters for Pennsylvania.

“Nobody’s done this before,” she said.

O’Connor said he’s heard time and time again that Harrisburg is working to move similar legislation. A red flag bill introduced by Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, did move out of the Judiciary Committee last session, but never received a full vote in the House.

“You know what?” O’Connor said. “We’re gonna be the ones who move it finally.”

Goodman said “it’s a really big deal” that Pittsburgh is, in a way, forcing state lawmakers to grapple with questions about gun safety and regulation.

How Harrisburg will respond is still up in the air. The Legislature passed a bill in 2014 that made it easier for groups like the NRA to sue municipalities that pass local gun laws. That law was overturned by the state Supreme Court two years later because of a technicality.

The House passed a revived version of the measure last session — with the support of Democrats and Republicans — but it never moved in the Senate.

In December, Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Beaver, tweeted to Peduto and other city officials that, when the bills passed, “the pro-#2A PA legislators will be right here ready to put you back in your place.” He also spoke against Pittsburgh’s proposals at a rally in January.

On Wednesday, Bernstine said via email, “I am continuing to monitor the illegal and unconstitutional actions in Pittsburgh.  There is nothing off the table in terms of our response to stop these egregious actions against law abiding citizens.”

For O’Connor, the bills were a moral response not only to the tragedy in his city, but to the inaction of state and federal lawmakers. 

“We want to fight,” O’Connor said. “We want to do something.”

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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