Prosecutor blocks gun law charges against Pittsburgh mayor

Ramesh Santanam and Michael Rubinkam
Associated Press
An AR-15 rifle with an attached silencer lies on the floor at a gun range at the NRA headquarters, in Fairfax, Va., on March 20, 2017. (Ali Rizvi/McClatchy/TNS)

PITTSBURGH – A prosecutor refused to approve criminal charges Friday against Pittsburgh’s mayor and six City Council members over the passage of firearms restrictions that gun rights advocates say are blatant and deliberate violations of state law.

Seven city residents tried to file private criminal complaints against Democratic Mayor Bill Peduto, who signed the legislation into law this week, and council members who voted to approve the bills. The complaints charge the mayor and council with official oppression and other counts.

Pennsylvania law allows citizens to file criminal charges, subject to approval by the district attorney. The office of Democratic Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. refused to accept the residents’ complaints Friday, saying prosecutors would not weigh criminal charges against the mayor and council until the new gun laws begin to take effect in about two months and someone is cited for violating them.

“We will consider a private complaint if somebody is aggrieved by the law,” Zappala’s spokesman, Mike Manko, told the residents Friday.

“Why do I have to be arrested? Why do I have to fall on a sword? Now, I have a criminal record,” replied Tony Golembiewski, one of the residents who tried to file charges.

The gun restrictions were passed after a mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue that killed 11 worshippers. Gun rights advocates are suing to get the laws overturned, noting Pennsylvania law forbids municipalities from regulating the ownership or possession of firearms and ammunition. Courts have thrown out previous municipal attempts at regulation.

The Pittsburgh legislation restricts military-style assault weapons like the AR-15 rifle authorities say was used in the synagogue attack. It also bans most uses of armor-piercing ammunition and high-capacity magazines, and allows the temporary seizure of guns from people who are determined to be a danger to themselves or others.

Zappala warned the council in January that it didn’t have legal authority to pass gun control legislation and predicted his office would be confronted with residents demanding criminal charges against council members who approved such a law.

The council passed a watered-down version of the original bills by a 6-3 vote. In signing them, Peduto said that “change only happens when you challenge the status quo.”

In a statement, the residents said that Peduto and Council “knew the illegality of their actions, yet pressed forward with them anyway.”

Peduto’s spokesman declined to comment Friday.

The residents may appeal Zappala’s decision in court. They said Friday that no decision had been made.

Residents accused the district attorney of moving the goal posts on the timing of their complaints, contending he had previously implied that council passage and the mayor’s signature on the new gun restrictions would be enough to consider their case.

“We figured that was the proper trigger,” said Val Finnell, a gun rights advocate helping the residents with their complaints. “He’s actually expecting someone to violate the law. This is a travesty of justice.”

Not so, said Manko, the district attorney’s spokesman.

“We are not encouraging anyone to sacrifice themselves to authorities,” he said.

Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.