By Matt Petras
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Hundreds of gun advocates, some armed, gathered outside the City-County Building to protest proposed gun-control measures Monday afternoon, welcoming speakers like Open Carry Pennsylvania founder Justin Dillon and “Kent State gun girl” Kaitlin Bennett.
The protest follows the recent announcement by Mayor Bill Peduto and Pittsburgh CIty COuncil Members that it was planning to present a suite of restrictive gun-control laws that include banning the sale of semi-automatic rifles in the city. The announcement was a response to the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill last October.
With these measures, council hopes to ban bump stocks and assault rifles within the city, among other gun restrictions. This has caught the ire of gun advocates who say the measures are not only wrong to pursue but also in violation of Pennsylvania state law.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Dillon told the Pittsburgh Current as the protestors were gathering before the event. “Of course, you can see that the turnout is pretty good. We’re here assembling. This isn’t about one group. This isn’t about Open Carry. This is about gun owners uniting, all together. This isn’t about anyone else other than that, and that’s the only reason why we’re here.”
After first gathering at the 1st avenue parking garage, the protestors walked to the City-County Building before the noon event. “Make America Great Again!” hats and other paraphernalia celebrating President Donald Trump was worn by many of the men and women in the crowd. As they walked, some thanked police officers on duty in the area. “Watch out for the knuckleheads,” one told the police.
Many held signs with varied messages supporting gun rights and condemning city council. Others were crass and mocked other protest mantras. One sign read “Black Guns Matter” with a picture of a black assault rifle on it.. Another referred to Mayor Bill Peduto as “Pedildo.”
“The gun restrictions that the mayor’s trying to produce and trying to get Governor Wolf to go in with, it can have a ripple effect across the commonwealth,” said Dan Copeland, 36, a Springdale resident and wielder of the “Pedildo” sign. Copeland had two small guns on him.
For about an hour, several speakers stood in front of a podium and addressed the crowd. While each had special areas of interest and different rhetorical flourishes, they preached one consistent message: the Tree of Life shooting was tragic, unjust and unnecessary, but additional gun regulations won’t help.
Kelly Ann Pidgeon, head of Armed and Feminine, an organization that provides gun training for women, talked up the necessity of gun rights for women. She discussed it alongside historic civil rights victories for women like the right to vote and equal pay for equal work. Gun rights are also essential for women, according to Pidgeon.
One lawmaker, republican State Rep. Aaron Bernstine, spoke at the protest. The crowd erupted approvingly after he lovingly called them “patriots” and “deplorables” and after he said Peduto and the council are breaking the law.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the mayor and his cronies are trying to force these ordinances on law-abiding citizens,” Bernstine said. “We say no to them and we say to no to any other local government trying to do the same.”
Bernstine was surprisingly pleasant to this group of protesters after he claimed on Twitter last year that he would run over protesters “with negative intentions” if they blocked him. It should be noted that those protesters were practicing nonviolent civil disobedience during a Black Lives Matter protest in St. Louis in 2017.
While Bernstine was speaking, a counter-protester emerged, brandishing a sign with “keep your guns away from our kids!” on it. Some booed, while others told their fellow gun-advocates to leave her alone.
“This is important. She has a right to be here just like you and me,” Bernstine told the crowd. He also said she “may change her mind.”
The speakers mostly stuck to guns, but, sometimes, they broadened the message. Bennett, who became a right-wing internet celebrity after her rifle-clad walks around Kent State, now her alma mater, went viral, slammed the proposed gun control measures and Peduto, calling him “Mayor Potato-Head.” But she also took aim at the media for how it covers guns, telling the crowd “the media is not your friend.”
After the protest, Bennett told the Current that it’s sad that so many millennials don’t agree with her on issues like gun control.
“I wish that I was able to convince everybody that I have the right opinion [and that] I am on the right side of this argument, but our media does not believe the same thing,” Bennett said. “Our media and academia, they push this gun control stuff and they push socialism, they push communism, they push this crazy idea of hate speech all onto these students, so no wonder why they don’t agree with me, because they’re being brainwashed by the media, by their parents and by their schools.”
It’s easy to stumble across folks online criticizing the speakers for largely not being from Pittsburgh. Bennett told the Current that outsiders’ perspectives like hers are still valuable.
“I came out to Pittsburgh because I support everybody’s right to self-defense, even if I don’t live here,” Bennett said. “I think it’s important that citizens across this country support each other even if you don’t live in that city or that states because it will come to your state eventually.”
Ann Schible, a 52-year-old who lives in Lincoln Place, was among the protestors’ Pittsburgh residents.
“[I’m here] to support my second amendment,” she said. “Actually, to support every amendment, because they’re chipping away slowly by surely. And to support my guns.”
Despite coming from Erie, Dillon is willing to put up a fight against Pittsburgh’s city council. At the podium toward the end of the protest, Dillon challenged Peduto and the city council to a public debate. He said he’d doing something nice for Peduto if he agrees.
“I’ll even personally buy you a cup of coffee and a donut,” Dillon said.