Allegheny County Common Pleas Senior Judge Joseph M. James struck down three gun-control ordinances passed by Pittsburgh City Council and signed into law by Mayor Bill Peduto in response to the Oct. 27, 2018, shooting at the Tree of Life building.
James found in a five-page opinion that Pennsylvania’s Uniform Firearms Act bars local municipalities from enacting firearm regulations.
The three laws, passed in April, would have banned assault weapons, including the Colt AR-15 rifle used in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting; banned accessories, modifications and certain types of ammunition and adopted “Extreme Risk Protection Orders,” enabling courts to temporarily prohibit a person from having guns if the individual is shown to possess a significant danger to themselves or others.
The judge’s ruling was anticipated by the mayor’s office. In an emailed statement to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Peduto’s communications director, Timothy McNulty, said: “The city and its outside legal counsel have always expected this would be a long legal fight and will continue to fight for the right to take common sense steps to prevent the gun violence plaguing Squirrel Hill and all city neighborhoods. We will appeal.”
Both the original law and James’ ruling have divided Pittsburgh and the Jewish community.
CeaseFire PA Director of Organizing Rob Conroy said he was “deeply disappointed’ in the decision although it was not “a complete surprise.”
According to Conroy, the Uniform Firearms Act’s language is open to interpretation and James issued a “general and sweeping statement.” He feels that the state law specifies “a municipality can’t regulate the lawful ownership or transfer of firearms and that is not, in our opinion and I believe, the city’s opinion, what any of those laws the city passed actually governed.”
Pittsburgh area attorney David Wolf disagrees with Conroy’s interpretation. “I think Judge James got it right. It’s quite clear in section 61.20, which says as a general rule, no county, municipality or township may, in any manner, regulate the lawful ownership, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components when carried or transported for purposes not prohibited by the laws of this commonwealth.”
Wolf is a lawyer with Goldberg, Kamim & Gravin, which has represented the largest gun collectors association in Pennsylvania. He believes the law was an attempt by the city to “usurp” the state’s legislative authority.
“As an officer of the court, I took a pledge to uphold the Constitution of the United States and of the commonwealth. I’m sure the mayor and City Council did the same. I’m sure they are very bright and can read what the statute says. If they don’t like the statute, we have ways to have it changed. This is not how you go about striking down legislation you don’t like.”
Cliff Zlotnik thinks that Peduto was attempting to do the right thing but believes what he did was wrong. “The bottom line is, what the Tree of Life shooting showed was what happens when people are unprepared, what happens when we have gun-free zones, what happens when bad guys can walk into places people feel safe with impunity.”
Pointing to “government evidence from the Centers for Disease Control,” Zlotnik added, “They say that guns or weapons are used 16 to 100 times more often to save a life than to take a life.”
Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence co-founder Carolyn Ban thinks the city acted to pass the laws because of the “utter failure of state and federal legislators to act.”
“House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman said as long as he is chairing the committee, he won’t bring any legislation to reduce gun violence. We think that’s undemocratic and unresponsive to the citizens of Pennsylvania,” Ban said.
Temple Emanuel of South Hills Senior Rabbi Aaron Meyer moved to Pennsylvania in July. As a new resident, he wondered if he knew enough “about the particular case of what municipalities get to do in the state of Pennsylvania. Regardless, I applaud the city of Pittsburgh. Often, change can only happen because there are positive instigations.”
Meyer served as an associate rabbi at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle. He pointed out that many cities now have progressive gun control laws.
“Washington state has passed gun violence prevention measures above and beyond federal standards. There are now 15 states, including Washington, that have extreme risk protection orders, or red flag laws on the books, as the city of Pittsburgh tried to put through. Twenty-one states, including Washington, have background checks above and beyond federal statutes. During my time in Seattle, both of those bills passed.”
If there is a middle ground to be explored, perhaps it is offered by Jon Tucker of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
“I’m out of step with the Republican Party in that I believe assault weapons should be treated as you treat sports cars that are not street legal,” Tucker said. “You can trailer them to the track and then drive them 200 miles per hour, but you can’t drive them on the street. I think assault weapons should be handled the same way.
“An argument I’ve never heard,” he continued, “is that assault weapons and weapons of mass casualty, these weapons should be put in a gun locker and only used in a gun club because there really is no other reason to own them.”
While Ban supports the recently overturned laws, her words of advice apply to all sides: “It’s up to citizens to educate themselves and let their elected officials know about positions that matter to them. We speak to legislators who say, ‘We hear from the other side all the time. We don’t hear from people that want us to pass this legislation.’ We need to be far more vocal.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@