Joseph Sabino Mistick: Judge Dillon, guns & Pittsburgh |
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Joseph Sabino Mistick

Let us start with the fact that Pittsburgh City Council’s gun-control legislation is born of heartbreak, frustration and anger over the murder of 11 of our neighbors during morning services at the Tree of Life synagogue in October.

Councilman Corey O’Connor’s proposal to regulate guns within Pittsburgh city limits is a natural human attempt to do something — anything — in response to that tragedy. And those who debate the Second Amendment without witnessing the helplessness of the families, congregations, neighborhoods and cities that have been shattered by military-style weapons clearly do not know the actual impact of those weapons.

But the reality is that under our law, any real legislative solution will turn on the words of John Forrest Dillon, a 19th-century federal circuit court judge. Dillon was chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court before President Ulysses S. Grant named him to the federal circuit court in 1869. And Dillon authored Dillon’s Rule, which is followed by Pennsylvania and most other states.

Dillon’s Rule states that municipalities are arms of the state, without inherent powers of their own. Without the state’s approval, certain subjects of legislation are beyond the power of local government because they are reserved by the state to the state. Gun regulation is one of those subjects.

As Dillon said in an 1868 opinion, “Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control.”

Pittsburgh’s leaders have encountered Judge Dillon before. In 1907, the U.S. Supreme Court cited Dillon’s Rule when it affirmed Pittsburgh’s annexation of the city of Allegheny against the wishes of that city’s voters. The court ruled that Pittsburgh simply used the power granted to it by the state Legislature, and Allegheny City was trying to use power that it had not been granted.

In Connecticut, more recently, because local leaders knew they lacked the power to enact gun reforms after 20 children and seven adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the Connecticut legislature stepped up. It passed tough gun regulations that limited magazine capacity, required background checks, banned over 100 assault weapon models, funded school safety and mental health programs, and created a dangerous offenders registry.

And Pittsburgh’s leaders must follow that same path, if they want laws that will stick. The mayor should be in Harrisburg every single week the Legislature is in session, knocking on every door and pressing Pittsburgh’s case at every turn.

And council members should convince their colleagues around the state to join the fight. Every association of municipal officials in Pennsylvania must be recruited. And local leaders who have not yet experienced the evil that came to Pittsburgh must know that it is only a matter of time before that evil visits their towns.

Much of this will take place out of public view, and it will rarely make headlines. But this is the only way. This is the hard work of democracy.

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