Earlier this week, gun rights protesters gathered en masse at the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh.
They were there to protest proposed local ordinances that would ban certain assault-style firearms, accessories and ammunition. And while the protest raised the temperature in a contentious debate, both sides agree on at least this much: If passed, the ordinances could have a long-term effect in the state – even though they may not be enforced at home.
Many protesters carried assault-style rifles to protest the proposed legislation, which would ban those firearms in the city. One protester, who identified himself as Pete but wouldn't give a last name, drove from Washington County to participate.
Pete described himself as a law-enforcement officer. He called the ordinances “a direct violation of the state constitution,” and added, “I cannot stand by and allow someone to violate the civil rights of Pennsylvanians without speaking out about it.”
The vast majority of those protesting appeared to be from outside Allegheny County – and in some cases from outside the state. Some Pittsburghers objected to non-residents trying to dictate the city’s ordinances.
“They shouldn't be allowed to,” said Cathy Coudriet, who watched Monday’s demonstration, but said she is “100 percent” in favor of the ordinances.
“We've just gone through a terrible tragedy here in Pittsburgh and it's just not the right time to be coming out here with their guns and telling us what to do about our city," she said.
Pete acknowledged the city’s legislation wouldn’t directly impact non-Pittsburghers like him. But he worries the rules could build momentum for statewide changes.
“Considering Gov. [Tom] Wolf showed up here when Pittsburgh decided they were going to enact it and based off of the current [friendship] between Gov. Wolf and Mayor [Bill] Peduto, I believe that the governor wants to use this as a jumping off point to try to change the Pennsylvania state Constitution,” Pete said.
Having a statewide impact is, in fact, part of the motivation for ordinance supporters like Rob Conroy. Conroy is the director of organizing for the gun-control advocacy group CeasefirePA. He said adopting the ordinances would show city leaders had “taken a stand symbolically and have attempted to push the state legislature and the federal legislature to take action by leading by example.”
The problem is that in Pennsylvania, state law bars local governments from crafting their own gun regulations. Only the state is permitted to do so.
That has tripped up city regulations in the past. Under a 2008 ordinance, if a gun owner’s firearm is lost or stolen, the owner must report it to the police within 24 hours of discovering the loss or theft. If they do not report it, they could face a $500 fine.
In 2015, the National Rifle Association sued Pittsburgh and other municipalities with similar ordinances. But the suit faltered amid questions about whether anyone had the right to sue, since no one had been charged for violating the ordinances. The law has since been on the books, but without having been enforced.
It’s not clear if the new ordinances would play out any differently.
City Council President Bruce Kraus said that if the ordinances do pass, “I do understand that most likely this will receive a legal challenge and it will go before the courts and we'll trust the judgment of the courts.”
But he says he disagrees with the state's decision when it passed a law barring local action on guns, “and I do believe that it's time to challenge that statute,” so the city has the power to protect “the safety of citizens in the street.”
City Councilor Corey O’Connor, who supported the new ordinances, said the law isn’t about taking guns away.
“We’re not going to go house to house looking for guns,” he said. “It’s more specific to types of guns. We have to pass it first to see what happens after that.”
Mayor Bill Peduto said that the city has not prosecuted the lost-and-stolen ordinance on the advice of groups like CeaseFirePA.
Conroy, for his part, says he feels that the lost-and-stolen ordinance would have survived a legal challenge. But in any case, he said, “It's very important to pass them because it is also important to push the state and federal legislatures into taking decisive action, as well.”
So far, efforts in Harrisburg to reform gun laws – or allow cities to rewrite their own – have gotten little traction. And attorney Jonathan Goldstein, who has represented the NRA, said passing these ordinances “is a waste of time energy and money and the people of Pittsburgh ought to call their elected representatives to account for it.”
“The power to regulate firearms has not been delegated to the city of Pittsburgh … or to any other local government,” Goldstein said. “So what they do is they pass these ordinances in the hope that they will chill the behavior of lawful gun owners. It's odious, it's unfair, it's illegal and it ought to stop.”
Allan Durand, who was on hand to observe Monday’s protest, said he was a gun owner himself, but said city leaders were in a bind. After the Tree of Life shooting especially, he said, much of the Democratic-leaning city wanted action on guns.
“It's the obligation of the government to try and do something about that since the constituents want it,” Durand said. “But it's also against the state law, which is what's going to make it an uphill battle.”
City Council will hold a public hearing on Jan. 24 at 6 p.m. at the City County Building to hear from the public.