A Pennsylvania judge Tuesday struck down three gun control ordinances enacted by the city of Pittsburgh after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last year, saying that state law prevented the city from regulating firearms.
The ordinances, announced in December, include an assault weapons ban, a ban on large-capacity magazines, and a measure that empowered courts to stop people from possessing firearms if they posed an imminent threat to themselves or others.
But Judge Joseph M. James of Allegheny County said in his opinion in the Court of Common Pleas that state law “preempts any local regulation pertaining to the regulation of firearms,” despite the “large amount of energy” the city put into arguing that its ordinances were lawful.
James’s decision came just two days after the first anniversary of the massacre. On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman opened fire at the synagogue and killed 11 people after the authorities said he had spewed anger toward Jews and immigrants online.
The decision also came as local officials nationwide are increasingly pushing back against similar state-imposed restrictions on the ability of cities and counties to enact gun control policies. As of late last year, 43 states had preemption laws that bar local governments from enacting nearly any gun regulation that would go beyond state law.
Joshua Prince, a lawyer for the gun rights groups and others who sued the city, said James’s decision showed that Mayor Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh, who championed the measures, and the City Council are “neither above the law nor a special class of citizens that may violate the law with impunity.”
“The city’s gun control sought to eviscerate the inviolate right of the residents of the commonwealth to keep and bear arms and ensnare law-abiding citizens through a patchwork of laws,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
Peduto said on Twitter that the city planned to appeal James’s decision.
“The city and its outside legal counsel have always expected this would be a long legal fight, and will continue to fight for the right to take common-sense steps to prevent future gun violence,” Timothy McNulty, a spokesman for the city, said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday night. “We will appeal.”
The measures were announced in December and immediately faced pushback from gun rights groups.
In January, the Allegheny County district attorney, Stephen A. Zappala, wrote a letter to a City Council member stating that he did not believe the council had the authority to pass the legislation and even suggested that council members who voted in favor of it could be prosecuted.
Peduto signed the ordinances into law in April. Three gun rights groups — the Firearms Policy Coalition, Firearm Owners Against Crime, and Firearms Policy Foundation — and three individuals quickly sued.
The Court of Common Pleas stayed the ordinances in May as the case proceeded.
In an interview with CityLab in February, Peduto said he was aware of the legal hurdles the city faced.
“But we feel we have to do something to change the temperature in Harrisburg,” Peduto said, referring to the state capital of Pennsylvania. “If this were to be followed by 50 other cities around Pennsylvania doing the same thing, it puts the pressure on the state legislators to act. We feel it’s worth the legal fight.”
He said that he believed the US Constitution gave the residents of Pittsburgh and other cities the right to “domestic tranquillity” that is taken away by gun violence, referring to a line in the Constitution’s preamble.
“So there’s this realization that it’s an uphill battle, but it’s a battle that has to happen, and it has to start somewhere,” Peduto told CityLab. “I really do believe it’s going to happen by cities saying enough’s enough.”
He added, “If you’re going to try and stop us from doing it ourselves, we’re going to go to court and we’re going to do it over and over until common sense prevails.”