Pittsburgh City Council Exits Its Lane, Passes Gun Control Laws; Lawsuits to Follow

April 2, 2019


Matthew Hoy

Pennsylvania has what is known as a state preemption law when it comes to gun control laws. In other words, the state legislature has reserved to itself the sole right to pass gun control laws.

This makes sense in a state with 2,562 municipalities, some of which are so small that if you blink, you just might miss them. Trying to stay on the right side of the law when every little town has its own firearm carry, storage or other requirements would be impossible.

The Pittsburgh City Council doesn't care.

In an effort to be seen as having done something in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, the Pittsburgh City Council voted 6-3 today on a series of gun-control bills that are almost certainly illegal.

Pennsylvania state law forbids municipalities from regulating guns, and pro-gun advocates vowed to sue to block the laws from taking effect. Last month, in an effort to write legislation that would not run afoul of state preemption, council voted to amend the bills, which had called for banning the possession of certain weapons and accessories. Instead they ban the use of those weapons and accessories within city limits. “Use” includes loading and firing.

Despite an existing city ordinance that already prohibits firing a gun within city limits, Mr. O’Connor said “going the ‘use’ route gives us still some protection for our residents when people who have assault weapons go out into the general public.”

Mr. Peduto said he will work with council members to set up a bill signing event. Opponents of the measure promised to act quickly after he does so.

“I’m certainly disappointed in the vote today, and as soon as the mayor signs [the bills], we’ll be proceeding with the private criminal complaints [against] council members who voted for the measure and the mayor if and when he signs,” said Val Finnell, a physician and gun-rights advocate from McKees Rocks who unsuccessfully attempted to file the criminal complaints in January. “It’s illegal. It’s unconstitutional, and you heard Councilwoman Harris say that today. She’s absolutely right, and there’s got to be consequences.”

As is usual with legislation passed in the wake of mass shootings, nothing passed by the Pittsburgh City Council today would've prevented the Tree of Life shooting.

Even the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's editorial board recognized that this will do nothing more than waste taxpayer resources as they attempt vainly to defend these illegal laws.

The revised legislation still exceeds the city’s authority. City council members who support the legislation, which stems from the Tree of Life tragedy in October, should know this.

But this a problem with government today. Officials expect their constituents to obey all laws, while they pick and choose which ones they’ll follow.

They’ll adopt a position they know is flimsy, like the city is doing with gun control, and like the city and county did in withholding details of their secret bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, then direct their law departments to defend it. Government lawyers dutifully work backward from the policy decision, creating fanciful legal theories to support bad policy.

City officials understandably want to change gun laws after the Tree of Life tragedy, but the way to do that is by lobbying state lawmakers. Passing local gun control may make officials feel good, and it may be a popular political statement.

However, it will invite costly litigation.

On the bright side, Michael Bloomberg's money is better spent defending the losing side in court rather than advertisements pushing for new gun control laws.

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