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Pittsburgh pushes strict gun laws after the synagogue massacre. Some people still don’t want them.

City council members have sponsored five gun restriction bills since the shooting at Tree of Life. But lawmakers are facing obstacles that may prove insurmountable.

Girls from the Yeshiva School of Pittsburgh gather to sing and pray at the memorial outside of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 29, 2018.
Girls from the Yeshiva School of Pittsburgh gather to sing and pray at the memorial outside of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 29, 2018.Read more--- Charles Fox / Staff Photographer

How does a city mourn when the debris of national tragedy begins to settle?

"There is no one word," said Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers, who survived the October attack at Pittsburgh's oldest synagogue. The pain still smolders, and communities have not yet come to grips with what happened, he said.

Meyers has focused on the harms of hate speech, which he calls the “root” problem, elected officials have drafted gun control legislation.

"Unfortunately, tragedies provide a window of opportunity," Carolyn Ban, co-founder of an anti-gun violence group and a former dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Several city council members have sponsored five gun restriction bills since the shooting at Tree of Life. But lawmakers from the site of the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States are facing obstacles that may prove insurmountable.

Local opponents of the gun measures are calling for Mayor Bill Peduto's (D) impeachment and demanding the district attorney bring criminal charges against top Pittsburgh officials, citing state law that prohibits municipal regulation of firearms.

Ban anticipates a legal battle over the legislation. "This is the first time I have seen serious legislation being proposed at all three levels of government. To me, that is a sign that the narrative really is changing," said Ban, who testified at city council hearings in January.

Three months after a gunman brought several firearms into the Squirrel Hill synagogue, including an AR-15 assault-style rifle, and fired on congregants during Saturday morning services, politicians are challenging state law to curb access to firearms.

The legislation includes a ban on assault-style weapons and bump stocks within city limits and will permit courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from individuals deemed to be an "extreme risk" to themselves or others. It also allocates funding for neighborhood organizations that fight daily community violence.

"The bills capture a lot of issues around gun control," said Councilman Corey O'Connor, who represents District 5 and has helped shepherd the legislation.

The proposals, which he called "common sense laws," are based on approaches that similarly-situated cities, with dense urban environments, have passed.

"You can still own weapons. We're just choosing certain ones that should be curbed if you're living in a city," he explained. "Cities are different. We are compact - neighbors aren't 2.5 acres from the next neighbor."

O'Connor argued that municipalities should also have a voice when it comes to protecting residents. He said, "This would be a fight to change the rules at the city level and working its way up."

On Oct. 27, the Pittsburgh shooter, identified by authorities as 46-year-old Robert D. Bowers, killed 11 people and injured six others. Federal prosecutors filed a superseding indictment two weeks ago, adding 13 hate crime violations to the 44-count indictment.

Bowers, who pleaded not guilty to the new indictment on Monday, targeted the Squirrel Hill building in which three congregations - Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light Jewish - worshiped, according to court documents. At the time, he made known his desire to "kill Jews." Online postings also detailed his loathing of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society with which Dor Hadash had a partnership.

A handful of the synagogue's members launched Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, an independent organization that supports legislation to reduce gun violence.

"It's time for us to get serious about reducing gun violence. Since that hasn't happened on the national or state level, we need to start at the local level," said Ban.

Rabbi Meyers added that "if anything can make a difference, you have to try."

Mayor Peduto, in an interview with The Washington Post, said that the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue was not the initial impetus for the recent gun bill.

"It's been the steady drum beat of gun violence in the city of Pittsburgh," he said. "It was that last act of a mass homicide that basically said we had to challenge the continual answer that 'there's nothing to be done.'"

Peduto, like many, grew up with guns in the family home. Still, he declared, something must be done to address the ongoing "public health epidemic."

"Access to [firearms] in an urban environment should not be as easy (or easier) than access to a toaster," he said.

Much of the opposition, according to Peduto, comes from those living outside the city of Pittsburgh, often in southwest Pennsylvania "where they don't have homicides on a continuous basis and where guns are viewed in a different social context."

Locally, pro-gun rights activists have signed petitions demanding the city council withdraw the proposed bill.

Jamaal Craig, executive director of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, applauded the mayor and city council for "taking a step in the right direction," though he raised the possibility that over-policing could adversely impact communities of color.

"We've got a crisis in our society where human lives are being taken at the blink of an eye. It's not a question about infringing on someone's constitutional rights or taking weapons away that people use for recreation," he said.

In a January letter sent to O'Connor, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala warned that criminal charges could be brought against "an individual member of Council who violates [the Pennsylvania code] by voting to adopt these type of regulations." After receiving a request to file a criminal complaint, Zappala reiterated in a statement that "the city council does not have the authority" to pass legislation regulating gun ownership.

Neither Peduto nor city council members have stood down.

Peduto said he will challenge the threat of criminal charges as "being unconstitutional and undemocratic."

"It's not whether these laws are constitutional - they're in effect in America today - but many mayors don't have the ability to pass them," he said, calling it "an opportunity to take back the laws and change them at a state and federal level."

Pittsburgh officials have already reached out to more than 50 cities throughout the state, including areas of Pennsylvania that typically lean to the right.

“Waiting for the state to take action has failed for 30 years,” Peduto said. “I don’t think we can wait a month, let alone a year, to wait to protect the amount of innocent lives being stolen.”