Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
After the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto stands committed to gun control legislation despite a direct confrontation with Pennsylvania state law.
On December 14, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto stood with Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and fellow city councilors Corey O’Connor and Erika Strassburger in City Hall and declared war on guns. The trigger for this war was the horrendous shooting that had taken place at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s historically Jewish, but currently diverse Squirrel Hill neighborhood on October 27. Robert Bowers, the person police captured for killing 11 people at the synagogue, was arraigned on February 11 on a 63-count indictment that includes hate crimes, obstructing religious freedom rights, homicide, and firearms charges. And it’s because of this mass shooting that Mayor Peduto wants Pittsburgh to lead a movement of cities across the state and the nation to pass strict gun control measures, despite the steep legal hurdles around gun rights created by the state and federal constitutions.
To that end Peduto is standing behind three ordinances currently pending in Pittsburgh’s city council that would ban assault weapons; ban ammunition, accessories, and gun modifications for semi-automatic guns; and create an “extreme risk protection order”—sometimes called a “red flag” system—to seize guns from people who could cause harm to themselves or others.
“No one in America wants a country where guns make our schools unsafe for children, families afraid in places of worship, and where our streets are stained every day with innocent blood,” said Mayor Peduto at a December 14 press conference announcing the ordinances.
Almost immediately after that announcement, several gun rights advocacy organizations, including the NRA, vowed to fight these bills in court if they are passed later this month, and some are in the process of trying to impeach the mayor. The local district attorney fired off a warning letter to Peduto telling him that passing such ordinances would violate state laws, which dictate that cities can not regulate gun activity.
However, the mayor is not backing down. This is not the first time that other government authorities have told him that his city can’t do something. He’s prepared to go to court, go to jail, and even go to Washington if need be to secure rights for cities to protect their constituents by passing gun safety and control measures. CityLab caught up with Mayor Peduto in his office to discuss his game plan moving forward as he navigates his way through strong winds of opposition.
CityLab: There have been many attempts by other cities to pass the kind of gun control measures you all are proposing, many of them failing, particularly in Pennsylvania. What makes this time the right time to win?
Mayor Bill Peduto: Well, it's not a guarantee that it will, but we feel we have to do something to change the temperature in Harrisburg. If this were to be followed by 50 other cities around Pennsylvania doing the same thing, it puts the pressure on the state legislators to act. We feel it's worth the legal fight. We've been contacted by four organizations or law firms that have offered pro bono assistance. Their goal is to provide us both legal assistance and advice. There's two different issues that we're going to look at on the law side, the first being the idea that elected officials could be held to criminal charges. And this isn't only in Pennsylvania, this is in other states as well, most notably Florida. I've spoke with the mayors of Parkland and Orlando, and one of the concerns is that if they do take action, they could face criminal charges. So elected officials are hesitant to do so. We want to challenge the very viability of that. We believe it's unconstitutional, and that elected officials have immunity in making those types of decisions.
The second issue is the question of the constitutional rights of the residents of Pittsburgh being taken away through gun violence—whether there is a domestic tranquility right that is guaranteed to them through the Constitution with the present laws that are in place. This is an argument that we believe has to be potentially decided at the federal level. There are rights being taken away from individuals in the urban areas by creating prohibitions at the state level. The state has decided that it will prohibit any local governments from taking actions on guns. We have a constitutional right of domestic tranquility, since the preamble of the constitution covers the entire constitution, and so we’re asking if those rights are being taken away through preemption.
So it’s almost like a civil rights movement, but for cities seeking more just gun laws.
That's exactly what the mayors from around this country are pushing for. The mayor of Toledo has been leading an effort with mayors from around the country to look at this issue from the market side. Cities are one of the largest purchasers of guns and ammunition in this country—a city like New York has over 40,000 police officers, and the amount of bullets that they go through in a year just for training alone has an economic impact on the industry as one of the largest purchasers of guns and ammunition. We should be putting together the standards that we want to see. We shouldn't be purchasing bullets off of those companies that manufacture armor-piercing ammunition. We should be looking for opportunities to find best practices and then put our purchasing power behind it.
The mayor of Annapolis [Maryland] a city that where journalists were killed in a hate crime, wants to look at how hate speech leads to hate crimes. He's looking to put together a gathering of cities this summer, and this is being formed organically. What happens when a tragedy occurs is, the mayors of the other cities will call in, they'll offer advice and assistance, and it has become so common that now the U.S. Conference of Mayors is looking at creating a trauma committee that would deal with gun violence and also other types of tragedies like the Ghost Ship fires in Oakland that took the lives of so many young people. When you go through that as a mayor there really isn't a handbook that you can just refer to. So organically around the country, you're seeing this taking off around gun violence. What I hope our actions in Pittsburgh will help do is galvanize a more coordinated and leveraged approach where we start to look very closely at what each city is doing, coordinating that message and the legislation, and then making sure that our state capitals and Washington are listening.
Is the idea here for getting a gang of cities on board to become a more formidable force against the NRA?
It would be to the benefit of the people who live in urban areas to have 50 lawsuits at the same time. Whether or not the gun lobby would be able to handle that, I'm not sure. But if it's a fight they want to have, then it's a fight that we will take on.
Have Pittsburgh police come out in support of the ordinances?
I haven't talked to the police union about this issue. However, armor-piercing bullets are not meant for deer. They have one purpose and it's to kill somebody who's wearing armor. And for the most part, that is our police officers. Doctors will tell you that the damage done by a semi-automatic assault weapon is critical because people who otherwise could be treated end up bleeding to death. They're made specifically for the purpose of taking bodies off a battlefield, and many times the officers are the target of those weapons. I would assume that there are many officers who would like to have less guns in the streets, especially those that ended up in the hands of people who wished to cause harm. But I also am pragmatic enough to know that there are many officers themselves that collect these types of guns.
“Red flag” ordinances and laws allow for restraining orders to take away guns from people who could be extreme risks due to mental health issues, a history of substance abuse, or who commit domestic violence—do you support having that apply to police officers as well?
Yep. In fact, we passed a law in Pittsburgh regarding officers involved with domestic violence and we require them to turn in their gun. That is no different than what the military does. If it's found that an officer is in a situation where they are going to hurt themselves or hurt somebody else, and the due process of allowing them to appear before court to defend themselves is there, just like we're proposing for anybody else, I can't see why it would be any different for police.
Did you anticipate the response from the district attorney, telling you that passing these ordinances could have you arrested?
I didn’t. I’ve worked [in city government] for almost 24 years and I can't remember one other time that the district attorney has weighed in on any legislative matter of city council. That's why we have a city solicitor. I'm still puzzled by it.
There was a law that prohibited people from Pittsburgh from getting married if they were the same sex. That went through the courts and was proven to be unconstitutional. The DA never said a word. There was the bill that mandated that every inch of Pennsylvania be zoned for fracking, and that local government had no say over their own zoning laws and that meant every inch of Pittsburgh would have been available to frackers. That was overturned by the courts as being unconstitutional. And the DA said nothing. There was a bill that required people to show identification in a specific form to vote, including an NRA card that was taken to the courts, and was proven unconstitutional, and the DA said nothing. So why did they weigh in on this one issue? Why isn't he questioning the ability of [the state] to strip the city council of its immunity and say instead that he would defend what will be proven an unconstitutional law?
What’s your response to those who say that ordinances like these are merely symbolic, not effective enough to stop gun violence?
It’s a constant drum beat of people who are dying who don't necessarily have to die. It’s the damage that's caused by these weapons. It's people who find themselves at a time of great instability, who need help, not a gun. And it's the inability to take that gun away from them temporarily, or the ability for them to purchase and use a weapon that can cause mass carnage.
These issues get blurred by the entire gun culture. If we were talking about toasters and people were dying every day, we would be taking these toasters out of kitchens. We have an epidemic. It's a public health issue. And there are those that don't want us to talk about it and just want us to let it go. Letting it go means somebody's not going to be able to see their son tomorrow. Letting it go means that a grandmother won't be around, and that her last day will be stolen from her. To say you can't do anything about it is foolish. So there's this realization that it's an uphill battle, but it's a battle that has to happen, and it has to start somewhere. I really do believe it's going to happen by cities saying enough's enough. If you're not going to help us, we're going to do it ourselves. If you're going to try and stop us from doing it ourselves, we're going to go to court and we're going to do it over and over until common sense prevails.