Two weeks ago, gun rights supporters rallied in Pittsburgh to protest the mayor’s plan to defy Pennsylvania’s state-wide preemption law and enact an “assault weapons ban” and red flag law within the city. Nevertheless, the Pittsburgh city council plans to vote on gun control legislation for the city by mid-February.
From the NRA-ILA, here’s why the city council doesn’t actually have the authority to pass these laws:
Like most other U.S. states, Pennsylvania reserves regulation of firearms to the state legislature. State law is clear that “[n]o county, municipality or township may in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components when carried or transported for purposes not prohibited by the laws of this Commonwealth.”
Pittsburgh should be under absolutely no illusions about its local authority to regulate firearms, or to prohibit “assault weapons” in particular, having already lost a preemption challenge to a previous assault weapon ban in the 1996 case of Ortiz v. Commonwealth.
Last week, Pittsburgh District Attorney Stephen Zappala wrote a letter to the city council explaining that passing these gun control measures through a city council vote would likely be a criminal act. The letter reads as follows (emphasis ours):
Dear Councilman O’Connor:
I greatly appreciate you forwarding me the proposed legislation, referenced above. As the District Attorney of Allegheny County for the past 20 years, I understand the efforts to curtail gun violence and limit the accessibility to assault weapons, ammunition, and gun accessories capable of causing widespread injury, destruction, and death. I am also aware of the city’s effort previously under Mayor Ravenstahl which was decided against the city in 2010. While I certainly see the desire for such type of legislation at the state and federal levels, I believe that City Council does not have the authority to pass such legislation.
In support of that opinion, I would refer you to 18 Pa.C.S. §6120; Ortiz v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 681 A.2d 152 (Pa. 1996); Dillon v. City of Erie, 83 A. 3d 467 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2014); and Firearm Owners v. Lower Merion Township, 151 A.3d 1172 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2016). I am certain that you have sought the legal advice of your Law Department as to whether 18 Pa.C.S. §6119 would permit a criminal complaint to be filed against an individual member of Council who violates 18 Pa.C.S. §6120 by voting to adopt these types of regulations. Likewise, I am sure you have discussed the due process implications of enacting any legislation reviewed by your Law Department, and found to be unconstitutional. I am also certain that you realize that if such legislation passes, there is sure to be a resident of Allegheny County who seeks to file a private criminal complaint alleging a violation of §6120. Those are matters which will confront my Office, should the legislation be enacted. This letter is not intended to express any opinion on the merits or outcome of any effort to charge such violation against Council members. I do not have any knowledge of the legal opinion provided to you by your Law Department. I mention the matters just to ensure their consideration by you and Council.
As indicated, I understand the desire of local governments to be proactive in reducing gun violence and the opportunities to cause the type of pain, suffering, and death, which recently occurred in the City of Pittsburgh. I believe however, that the legislative effort needs to come from the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and that the legislation currently before Council, if passed, will be found unconstitutional.
Note that Zappala’s letter is actually quite sympathetic to the idea of gun control – he’s suggesting that he’d like to see more stringent gun control measures passed. He just wants them passed legally.
However, the author of the proposed gun control legislation, City Councilman Corey O’Connor, essentially tore up and burned Zappala’s very reasonable letter.
Here is a partial transcript of what O’Connor stated in an interview on public radio:
LYNNE HAYES-FREELAND (HOST): So, this letter from the DA’s office, were you surprised by it? Did you expect it? What was your reaction?
COREY O’CONNOR: We got it, uh, last week, um, so I’m really surprised all of a sudden it’s a social media post. Our office also talked to his office about the legislation before the letter even came over to us, so I don’t really understand what the need for social media was… but yeah, we received the letter last week, yeah.
HAYES-FREELAND: Well, what’s your reaction? I mean, he is arguing in the letter… a lot of what some of the open carry proponents had argued over the last couple weeks, that they believe this proposed legislation is illegal.
O’CONNOR: Yeah, I would argue we are doing the right thing, uh, we said we were gonna do this, and when we get elected officials that come out against gun violence… I mean, we’re not just talking about three bills, I mean, there’s five bills that we’re proposing to talk about gun violence, and they’re commonsense approaches to it. We are taking the stand that we are doing what’s right for our constituents. And not only that, we’ve seen this occur all across the country, and when are people gonna stand up and actually fight? I mean, we have a good coalition that we’ve built on council, with organizations outside of council throughout the state that are willing to finally take a stand and fight against gun violence. I don’t understand what the rationale would be to take the opposite side, when we see this as a daily occurrence.
HAYES-FREELAND: So, final question, Corey O’Connor, representative from City Council, you got this letter, you got it last week, surprised you that it popped up on social media today, but the bottom line for you is you’re gonna keep pushing toward the proposed legislation.
O’CONNOR: Yeah, you know, we believe we’re on the right side of history. We believe we’re doing what’s right for our city but we think this is what’s right across the country, and nobody is gonna stop us from doing that. And we are going to get, hopefully, our votes from City Council to pass this bill and move forward from there.
What is there to add? The corruption and hypocrisy really couldn’t be any clearer. You can also listen to the full recording right here: