Pittsburgh City Council preliminarily approves controversial gun legislation

Protestors carry signs as they attend a rally on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in Pittsburgh. The protesters, many openly carrying guns, gathered in downtown Pittsburgh to rally against the city council's proposed restrictions and banning of semi-automatic rifles, certain ammunition and firearms accessories within city limits. (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

Protestors carry signs as they attend a rally on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in Pittsburgh. The protesters, many openly carrying guns, gathered in downtown Pittsburgh to rally against the city council's proposed restrictions and banning of semi-automatic rifles, certain ammunition and firearms accessories within city limits. (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

Pittsburgh City Council on Wednesday green-lit its controversial gun-control legislation by a preliminary vote of 6-3.

The bills, which will likely face a court challenge, would ban the use of semi-automatic weapons, assault-style rifles and similar firearms, accessories like bump stocks and armor-piercing ammunition within city limits.

“We passed many bills that we have gone to court over,” acknowledged R. Daniel Lavelle, one of the councilors in support. “I think in this case, again, we’re going to do everything we can to stop people from getting killed from these kinds of guns.”

Pittsburgh councilors Darlene Harris, Theresa Kail-Smith, and Anthony Coghill voted no. Harris and Kail-Smith’s no votes were long expected. Coghill was a sponsor of the measures but sounded increasingly concerned about them during a public discussion last month.

Opponents expressed sympathy for the effort but said it was barred by state law.

“Even though I’m not supportive [of the bill], I am supportive of the idea,” Kail-Smith said. But she and Harris referred to a failed 1990s local assault-rifle ban that prompted state legislators to explicitly limit local governments’ ability to pass laws. “We have challenged [gun laws] before. That’s why now we are unable to.”

Squirrel Hill councilman Corey O’Connor sponsored the measure after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting last fall, which took place in his community. He thanked councilors for their support. Referring to efforts in New Zealand to limit firearms after a shooting at a mosque, he noted that, “If you look at other countries, they make changes right away.”

The bills have caused a stir in the city since their introduction in December. Originally, they barred possessing a range of weapons, as well as bump-stocks, certain kinds of ammunition, and other accessories. Opponents say that local municipalities are barring from passing their own gun laws, because state law pre-empts them from doing so.

Last week Pittsburgh City Council introduced amendments to the bill that sought to address the concerns about state pre-emeption. The amendments scaled back the outright ban on weapons and accesssories by making those bans dependent on changes to state law. But in the meantime, the new language bans the use of the weapons and accessories within city limits.

The amendments also hold parents responsible if minors used guns outside of the home.

Councilor Erika Strassburger said state law says nothing about municipalities banning the use of certain weapons. The law bars local governments from trying “in any matter [to] regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms,” but doesn’t address use explicitly.

But Kim Stolfer, president of Firearms Owners Against Crime, said the new bills are still unconstitutional.

“By saying they think they can regulate use, they’re going against Pennsylvania law again,” Stolfer said. “The pre-emption law may [not] ‘in any manner’ regulate this activity. They have no authority whatsoever.”

City Council is slated to take a final vote on the measures next Tuesday. Mayor Bill Peduto has been supportive of council’s efforts and is expected to sign the bills.

This story is developing and will be updated. 

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