Gun Advocates Argue Against Proposed City Firearm Regulations

Feb 12, 2019

Critics of Pittsburgh's proposed gun-control regulations were vocal during a post-agenda hearing convened by City Councilor Darlene Harris Tuesday afternoon. 

Leadoff panelist John Lott, a controversial partisan in the debate over gun-violence, said that gun-free zones and similar rules could invite attacks.

"One of the things you see frequently mentioned is the choice of target," he said. 

Gun laws seeking to limit firearms were often ineffective, he added, because "drug gangs from the rest of the world bring in weapons" to the United States. Given that, "We have to be careful not to disarm law-abiding citizens."

A second panelist, psychologist Charles Gallo, said that in the wake of a horrific act of gun violence like last fall's shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, "The anger attempts to find a place to go ... It doesn't go to the perpetrator; it goes to an object." 

The panel’s make-up, which Harris’ office said was still being finalized as of Tuesday morning, tilted heavily toward foes of gun regulation. Gallo, for one, is a board member of Firearm Owners Against Crime, the region’s highest-profile gun-rights advocacy group. (The meeting agenda identified him only as a clincial psychologist.) Another panelist invited to speak, Kim Stolfer, is the group's president, while a third speaker, Allegheny County Councilor Sam DeMarco, is a FOAC member who has been endorsed by the group in previous election cycles, and is up for re-election this year.

Stolfer drew umbrage from councilor Theresa Kail-Smith, who had supported Harris' call for a post-agenda. At one point, he asked, "Why are we not holding the [Tree of Life] synagogue responsible for not having security?"

Kail Smith said she was "offended" by the question. "It's almost blaming the victims," she said. "When you make those kinds of comments, you hurt your own cause."

Stolfer said he wasn't blaming the congregants, but the idea of a no-gun policy.

But Lott has the highest national profile, in part because he frequently appears on TV following mass shootings, like the 2015 killing of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.

His book "More Guns, Less Crime" is a touchstone for gun-rights advocates, though its argument that gun-control measures can increase crime has drawn criticism from other researchers. Lott himself came under fire after an incident in which he apparently created a fake online account to tout his accomplishments as an academic, among other controversies.

Other speakers invited included former Democratic state Rep. Dom Costa, who did not attend the hearing, and a representative from the District Attorney's office. District Attorney Steve Zappala himself previously sent council a letter discouraging it from adopting the regulations

Harris called for the post-agenda, saying she wanted "neutral people" to weigh in on the city regulations, which would ban certain kinds of weapons, ammunition, and accessories. Harris herself has not backed the bill, though a council majority supports it. She sais she believes the meeting was neutral because Lott has no relationship to any of the organizations, and a representative from the District Attorney's office was in attendance. 

"What I tried to have here was very fair," Harris said. "I even tried to make sure it was balanced, whether it was independents, Democrats, Republicans; I tried to make sure it was fair." 

Harris said she used district office funds to pay airfare for Lott, who resides in the Philadelphia area, and that there were no other expenses for the trip.

Harris herself has not backed the bill, though a council majority supports it. And it seemed clear that the post-agenda did little to change that.

City Councilor Anthony Coghill, who has joined in sponsoring the legislation, acknowledged having some misgivings about it Tuesday. But other councilors who attended remained staunch in their support.

"I still believe we are doing the right thing," said legislation sponsor Corey O'Connor, whose council district includes Tree of Life. O'Connor acknowledged that the bills would need to be amended to some extent -- an admission he has made before -- but said, "If you don't think there is a [gun] problem, then I think you have a problem."

Council President Bruce Kraus, who often does battle with Harris at the council table, did so again, and engaged in sharp exchanges with the speakers and a member of the audience who was filming the event.

Kraus cast doubt on some of Lott's data and towards the meeting's end said, "I saw nothing here that changed my mind whatsoever." He left the chamber shortly after.