Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Legislature

Andrea Wedner, center, who was wounded at the Pittsburgh synagogue attack that killed 11 people last year, stands with others as they are acknowledged by Pennsylvania lawmakers who came together in an unusual joint session to commemorate the victims of synagogue attack, Wednesday, April 10, 2019, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG – As the General Assembly conducted a memorial service to honor victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, controversy over whether guns laws should or could be changed in response to the tragedy heated up.

The Pittsburgh City Council this week approved four local measures to tighten gun laws there. The National Rifle Association has already announced that gun owners in the city plan to challenge the laws as being a violation of a state law that bars local governments from passing stricter gun laws that the state has.

Wednesday’s memorial honoring the victims of the synagogue shooting that claimed 11 lives was the first such joint-session memorial gathering since September 2001, when a similar gathering took place in the days after the 9/11 attacks, House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said.

“That’s the gravity to which we are attributing what happened,” Turzai said at the opening of Wednesday’s memorial.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle spoke about the community response to the tragedy, but didn’t address the possibility of changing the state’s gun laws in response to the tragedy.

Rabbi Cheryl Klein of the Congregation Dor Hadash, however, in the closing prayer, said: “We pray we are not guilty of inaction,” and “paralyzed by politics.”

Congregation Dor Hadash is one of three Jewish congregations that worship in the Tree of Life synagogue.

Faced with state inaction on proposed changes intended to prevent mass shootings, Pittsburgh City Council passed and Mayor Bill Peduto signed local gun control measures on Tuesday – including an assault weapon ban, a limit on high-capacity magazines and an Extreme Risk Protection Order measure, designed to make it easier to get guns away from people who are a danger to themselves or others.

The NRA announced Tuesday that it was working with local gun owners who are suing to get the new city laws halted by the courts, as a violation of the state law barring local gun laws that are more rigorous than the statewide laws.

Pennsylvania courts have previously upheld the state law pre-empting local gun laws, most notably in a 1996 case out of Philadelphia, Ortiz v. Commonwealth. That case focused on a challenge to local assault weapons bans, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

More recently, the state Supreme Court threw out a state law that would have allowed gun-owners to seek to get cities to pay their attorney fees in lawsuits challenging local gun control laws.

“I don’t think it’s a slam dunk either way,” said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire PA, a Philadelphia-based gun control lobbying group. Goodman said that the state Supreme Court, which now has a majority of Democrats, “has a different makeup” than it did when it was asked to consider earlier cases.

She added that the court might consider whether the state has an obligation to take action on gun laws if it’s preventing local governments from doing so.

But gun rights groups argue that the city’s move is blatantly illegal.

“This is not about gun safety, this is a criminal act,” said Kim Stolfer, president of Firearms Owners Against Crime. “If they want to lobby to change the law, that’s fine. But you can’t break the law to change the law.”

State Rep. Tedd Nesbit, R-Mercer, said that combating hatred “is a bipartisan issue,” but he criticized the move by Pittsburgh to pass local gun laws.

“I’m disappointed in Mayor Peduto and (Pittsburgh) city council for passing a bill that he acknowledged will start a constitutional fight,” he said.

As superintendent of the largely rural Forest Hills School District outside Johnstown, David Lehman understands the complexity of changing gun laws.

“There are two sides to that,” Lehman said. 

“There are a lot of sportsmen in the district. I was a hunter most of my life. But then, on the school side, you want to make sure people that should not have weapons, don’t have weapons.”

Responsible gun ownership is also important, Lehman adds. Storing guns properly in the home, with ammunition stored separately, should be the norm.

“No matter what the law is, that’s a huge piece,” he said.

Bob Kalina, president of Greater Ferndale Sportsmen’s Club near Johnstown, is not convinced gun laws reduce violence.

“No matter any political stuff; whatever anybody changes, they are still going to be killing people,” Kalina said. “They are going to be able to get guns anyway.

“I can’t see any big deal on background checks and stuff; you know, tougher ones,” he said. “I don’t know what it would take to solve it.”

Those with mental health and drug abuse issues should be identified, he said.

“That’s where they should start,” Kalina said. 

“People not acting right, and nobody does anything about it.”

Monday, gun control advocates rallied at the Capitol in support of a measure that would create a statewide Extreme Risk Protection Order, such as the one enacted in Pittsburgh.

The protection order measure seems to have the most bipartisan support among possible gun law changes circulating at the Capitol, Goodman said. But in a sign of how momentum has shifted on the issue, there are also an increasing number of proposals to try to weaken the state’s preemption law by creating exemptions to allow cities to pass local laws, she said.

One of those measures is proposed by state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, whose district includes the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where the Tree of Life shooting took place.

“These episodes of mass violence, when coupled with the everyday firearms related violence, leaves communities seeking local solutions,” Frankel said in a December memo announcing his proposal. “It is time for us to move legislation that will expand the ability of local governments to respond to mass shootings, terror attacks and ongoing violence within their municipal borders.”

Frankel has yet to formally introduce that legislation.

Tribune-Democrat reporter Randy Griffith contributed to this report.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.