Past Challenges Could Bring Changes to Pittsburgh in 2019
Expect a fight. Pittsburgh has the potential to be at the epicenter of the nation’s gun control debate—at least for the next few months.
The Steel City was shaken to its core by the mass shooting that took place last October at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the close-knit neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. Eleven people were killed during a worship service in the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in America’s history.
While the shooting embodied anti-Semitism and hatred, it also became the catalyst for potentially significant policy changes.
Recently, Mayor Bill Peduto and Gov. Tom Wolf – along with state and local officials – held a news conference to discuss three gun control measures being introduced for debate to City Council. The proposed legislation would:
Ban assault weapons within city limits;
Prohibit ownership of gun accessories such as bump stocks and armor-piercing bullets; and
Expand the local courts’ authority and enable them to temporarily remove guns from people if a family member or law enforcement officer believes they pose a significant danger to themselves or others.
Supporters of the legislation called it “common sense” reform, while opponents argue that passing these kinds of measures would be a violation of state law.
Pennsylvania does not permit local municipalities to pass their own regulations on guns. And while city officials have essentially acknowledged their gun control proposals violate state law, they are refusing to back down. It is significant that Mayor Peduto and city council members have public support from some state officials for these proposals.
“We acknowledge there have been efforts at the federal level and by state lawmakers to amend our firearms laws,” said City Councilwoman Erika Strassburger. “But in light of those efforts going nowhere, we felt the need to take action on the local level."
Additionally, City Councilman Corey O’Connor said he wants Pittsburgh to be a “leader in building a statewide coalition to fight gun violence and the gun lobby.” O’Connor is among several local elected officials encouraging other cities across the country to introduce and pass similar gun control measures.
Since the three proposed pieces of legislation were introduced, Councilwoman Darlene Harris and Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith pulled their names from sponsorship of the gun bills. Both have called for a “fact-finding” meeting in an effort to gather additional information on the issue.
Opposition has been swift. Gun rights advocates have threatened legal action against city council members if they move forward with the legislation.
Firearm Owners Against Crime (FOAC) is a politically active group based in Washington County that advocates against increased gun restrictions. With thousands of members across the country, FOAC has become the lead voice against the proposed legislation and made it clear it plans to file a lawsuit.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) also quickly announced its opposition. It accused city council members of showing a “wholesale disregard of the rule of law” by introducing the measures.
Last week, hundreds of gun rights protesters gathered in downtown Pittsburgh outside of the City-County building to voice their opposition against the proposed gun control legislation.
Hearings will be held in upcoming weeks, with the first public hearing scheduled to be held on Jan. 24 at the City-County building to discuss the three proposed pieces of gun control legislation.
A vote on the regulations has not been scheduled, but there has been speculation (and rumors) that it might occur on February 14th—the anniversary of the Parkland, Florida school shooting.
With 2019 being a municipal election year, there are a several important races in the area.
Five of the nine Pittsburgh City Council seats are up. Expect three of those races to draw plenty of attention leading up to the May primary.
City council president Bruce Kraus’ District 3 seat is up. The Incline and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette both reported he will face two challengers from his own party in the primary. Kraus is a democrat and has served on city council for a decade.
Council member Darlene Harris will be challenged in a Democratic primary for her District 1 seat by two candidates, Bobby Wilson and Chris Rosselot. Chris Rosselot was a staff member for Senator Bob Casey for seven years. Harris has served on city council since 2006, but Rosselot is younger and well-connected politically – so this race will be an interesting one to watch.
And finally, the race that will likely garner the most attention will be in District 9. Community activist Leon Ford, 25, announced plans to run, which has energized many African-American residents. Ford was shot by a white Pittsburgh police officer during a traffic stop six years ago. The shooting left him paralyzed and he has become a vocal advocate speaking out against police misconduct. The city settled a federal lawsuit over the shooting, with Ford receiving $5.5 million as part of the settlement.
Ford’s candidacy comes when the region is still grappling with the death of Antwon Rose in the summer of 2018. Rose, also African American, was 17 when he was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop just outside of the city limits. His death outraged local residents, spurring large protests that lasted throughout the summer.
The seat Ford is running for is currently held by council member Rev. Ricky Burgess, a practicing pastor and professor at the Community College of Allegheny County. Burgess has yet to say whether he plans to run again. Both Ford and Burgess would be running as democrats.
Expect Ford’s presence in this race to drive the issues of racism and police behavior to the forefront of political conversation in Pittsburgh, leading up to the May primary.
Caitlin O'Connor is a Senior Associate in Ceisler Media's Pittsburgh office.