By Haley Frederick
Pittsburgh Currrent Staff Writer
The crowd for Thursday’s Pittsburgh City Council public hearing on proposed gun legislation was expected to be so large that the the gathering was held in the lobby of the City-County Building, rather than council’s usual fifth floor chambers.
About 100 people signed up to speak, each for three-minutes. Many waited a long time for their turns at the microphone. The meeting lasted close to four hours and everyone in attendance, except for council members stood while they waited because there were no chairs.
The three bills of proposed legislation were announced at a press conference on Dec. 14 by Gov. Tom Wolf, Mayor Bill Peduto, and City Council members Corey O’Connor and Erika Strassburger
The first bill is an assault-weapons ban making it unlawful to manufacture, sell, purchase, transport, carry, store, or otherwise hold in one’s possession an assault weapon within the City, such as the Colt AR-15 automatic rifle used in the Tree of Life shooting.
The second bill is an accessories, ammunition and modification ban barring items such as bump stocks, armor-penetrating bullets, sawed-off rifles and large capacity magazines often used in mass shootings.
And the third is an adoption of Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), which enable courts to temporarily prohibit a person from having guns if law enforcement or immediate family members show that the individual poses a significant danger.
By 6 p.m. Thursday when the public hearing began, hundreds were lined up in the lobby of the City County building, some waiting to speak, some there to support others who advocated for their message. Those who pre-registered spoke first for three minutes each, and those who did not register in advance would speak after for one minute each. Seating in the lobby was very limited, just the usual lobby benches were available, so City Council President Bruce Kraus encouraged those in line to allow people who may have trouble standing to speak first.
Kraus opened the hearing and explained the proceedings. It became clear that tensions were high as he was immediately met by hostile remarks from some in the crowd. “This is not theater,” Kraus said. “This is an official meeting of the Pittsburgh City Council and it will be treated as such.” Kraus repeated this sentiment several times throughout the hearing when the crowd became too loud, or cheered for a speaker too much.
Those speakers presented a variety of opinions on the issue.
Three students from Taylor Allderdice High School–Luke Chinman, Maya Shook and Abigail Segel–came to share their concerns about gun violence.
“A lot of people don’t feel safe in their communities because of the presence of guns,” Chinman told the Current. “Last Friday there was really low attendance because there was threat that someone was going to shoot up the school and there was a student that was killed two days prior to that.”
Just two weeks ago, a classmate of theirs at Taylor Allderdice, Jonathan Freeman, was shot and killed in Homewood at the age of 16. Two days later, a rumor of a threat made to the school circulated on social media. Pittsburgh Public Schools called the threat “unsubstantiated,” but brought in security to ensure students safety. However, Chinman indicated that many students still did not feel safe enough to come to school.
Many speakers, like Renata Entley of Erie, drove a significant distance to make it to the hearing Thursday. Entlay opposes the proposed gun legislation, and was one of many to point out the illegality of the bills. “What [Peduto] is doing is illegal, it’s against state law. The right to keep and bear arms via the citizens of Pennsylvania shall not be questioned,” Entley said, paraphrasing the Pennsylvania State Constitution.
“This country was fought for with guns and if they want to take them, they’re going to have to fight,” she continued.
Another speaker accused the City Council of “advocating lawlessness.”
But others said the proposed legislation could still have an impact.
“Even if there is a state law that prevents it, still by introducing these laws it makes the public more aware of the issues and it puts more pressure on legislators to pass laws on the statewide level that would restrict gun ownership and use,” Allan Willinger of Edgewood told the Current.
Willinger attended the hearing with his wife, Jo Schlesinger, who had not registered in advance, but hoped to speak. Schlesinger’s ex-husband was shot in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting and survived.
“I spent day after day, night after night, week after week watching him fight for his life in a trauma ICU,” Schlesinger said. “I’ve always been against assault rifles and guns not used just for sport, and so to get that close to that kind of violence made me really feel it was an urgent issue.”
Schlesinger has since become involved with CeaseFirePA and will be speaking at their “Rally for Action” in Harrisburg on Jan. 29.
Other than the legality of the proposed legislation and the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, another popular topic among speakers was the AR-15.
“An AR-15 rifle with a 30-round magazine shoots up to 100 rounds per minute,” said Ian Davis, personal defense instructor at Davis and Company: Firearms and Personal Defense Training in Mckees Rocks. “The most rapid-fire mass shooting in the history of the United States since Columbine has achieved only 31 rounds per minute.
“Conclusion: given what we’ve experienced in the 50 mass shootings since Columbine, given that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior and all other factors remaining the same, it is unreasonable to conclude that the reduction in the 30 round magazine capacity of the AR-15 will materially contribute to reducing the casualty or death rate of mass shootings.”
The next speaker to take the podium was George Cadiz, a Vietnam war veteran of Moon Township. He expressed his belief that military-grade weapons like the AR-15 do not belong in the hands of citizens.
“It is not designed for hunting; it is not designed for personal protection,” Cadiz said. “Veterans know the high lethality of these weapons.”
The registered speakers finished around 9:30 p.m., and several unregistered speakers followed. Four hours passed from the hearing’s start to its end. In a Dec. 14 press release from the Mayor’s Office when the proposed gun legislation was announced, an optimistic timeline was presented.
“The bills will be subject to weeks of debates and hearings with the hope they can be approved by February 14, 2019, the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting of 17 schoolchildren and staff in Parkland, Florida,” the release said.
Speaking of the mayor, Peduto was not in attendance at Thursday’s hearing. Earlier that day, he tweeted a picture from the National Conference of Mayors in Washington D.C. to say that he was meeting with the mayors of Orlando and Parkland to “discuss the trauma of mass shootings in our cities and ways we can work together to lessen the frequency of these horrific events.” Peduto is going to speak about Pittsburgh’s proposed gun legislation at the conference on Friday.
The city has passed gun legislation before. In 2008, the Lost and Stolen Handgun bill that aimed to put a stop to illegal gun trafficking passed with a City Council vote of 6-1. During his campaign for Mayor, Peduto called implementing the Lost and Stolen Handguns legislation his “first order of business.” But despite those campaign promises, the legislation has never been enforced for fear of a lawsuit that the city would likely lose. It was illegal for municipalities in Pennsylvania to regulate firearms back then, and it still is today.
There are anti-gun control critics who are, of course, against passing any of the new proposed legislation. But there are also gun control advocates wondering: if these bills are passed, will they ever actually be enforced? And if not, what’s the point?
Peduto has suggested that he plans to challenge the state’s law banning gun regulation at the municipal level, saying:
“I’m confident that we have a decent case to make that will not only ultimately be able to uphold what we’re trying to do but also change the discussions in Harrisburg and Washington.”