Pittsburgh gun bills have little chance in courts, legal experts say | TribLIVE.com
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Pittsburgh gun bills have little chance in courts, legal experts say

Bob Bauder
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Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s chambers in the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg Nov. 19, 2015.

Legal experts gave Pittsburgh good marks for creativity in crafting ordinances aimed at regulating firearms in the city but said the bills have little chance of surviving the legal challenges that are sure to come.

The courts might uphold some provisions in the package of bills, but the city would likely have a better chance at changing gun regulations by working through the Legislature in Harrisburg, the experts said.

And even that could be tough.

“I think, the odds are the whole thing will be struck down,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor and constitutional expert.

City Council on Tuesday approved ordinances that would ban the use of certain military-style rifles, ammunition and accessories and give courts authority to seize the guns of a person deemed to be a threat.

A provision in one of the bills includes penalties for any adult who permits unsupervised access to guns by a child. Another provision would ban the possession of semi-automatic weapons, ammunition and accessories, but only if state lawmakers or courts permit that.

Second Amendment advocates have vowed to sue the city and file private criminal complaints as soon as the bills pass. Mayor Bill Peduto is expected to sign them into law next week.

City Councilman Corey O’Connor, one of the main sponsors, acknowledged that the city has lost court battles in two previous attempts to regulate firearms. He said council has never passed an ordinance banning the “use” of guns. He said a more liberal leading Pennsylvania Supreme Court could be inclined to uphold the bills.

The current court is made up of five Democrats and two Republicans. At least three of the justices have ties to Allegheny County. Justices David N. Wecht and Max Baer are former county judges and Justice Christine Donohue practiced law in the county for more than 20 years and lives in Point Breeze. Justice Debra Todd lives just outside Allegheny County in Cranberry.

“I think we have a better chance because it’s a new court, and they might have an open mind regarding gun safety considering what’s gone on around the country with these mass shootings,” O’Connor said.

Legal experts said Pittsburgh’s problem is a state law that preempts municipalities from passing gun regulations.

Ledewitz said council was “very creative” in prohibiting the use of firearms, but state courts are more likely to view that as an outright ban on the possession of guns. He said Pittsburgh might have a chance with the bill prohibiting children from accessing guns.

“I think that’s a closer call, because that’s directly regulating public safety rather than possession of a gun,” he said.

Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at Saint Vincent College and former federal prosecutor, said a better strategy would be to pressure state lawmakers for a change in law. He said judges — whether liberal or conservative — would have a hard time ruling in favor of the city because of the preemption law.

“Judges, regardless of ultimately how they got to the bench, have to be able to read the law as it is written,” he said. “I don’t know how you would effectively reason around this as a judge. The intent of the city is clear and admirable. The problem is this statute is staring you in the face.”

Gerald Shuster, a political communication professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said it would be equally difficult to get a change in state law.

”The lobbyists from the NRA and other organizations are so powerful an so well heeled. It’s going to be difficult because so many senators and representatives are in the back pocket of these people,” he said. “I think they would be better served to go after the electorate and make the public go after them and put their feet to the fire.”  

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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