OPED: Hatred and gun violence have no place here

State Sen. Wayne Fontana
Allegheny County

Writing today with a very heavy heart. 

Far too many times, we watched in shock as mass shootings crippled our nation — but those horrors happened in communities far away and the issues that gave rise to the attacks seemed distant. 

Now, that nightmare has come to our own neighborhood.  

To our friends and neighbors in Squirrel Hill, we admire your spirit, strength and unity; to members of the Tree of Life Synagogue, we offer our heartfelt sympathy as you grieve and try to make sense of this harrowing tragedy; to members of the Jewish faith everywhere, we stand with you in solidarity; to law enforcement and emergency responders, we salute you and thank you for your heroism.

Most of all, to the victims and their families, our hearts are broken for you. Your devastation and loss are unfathomable. We mourn with you. May you find peace and comfort.

A synagogue is a place of peace and reflection. It is a sanctuary. However, on that Saturday morning, that peace was invaded. Bigotry, violence and terror walked in and terror ensued. It was the largest, most heinous act of violence against the Jewish people in the history of our nation.

Now that mass killings have infiltrated our beloved city, the issue of gun violence has been placed on the doorstep of each Pennsylvania home. No more avoidance and finger-pointing. No more hiding. While this issue should be addressed at the federal level, our “leaders” in Washington have stuck their head in the sand. It is a failure of leadership that is unconscionable. State level action is needed now.

Earlier this year, following the tragic events in Parkland, Florida, I introduced legislation (Senate Bill 17) to establish the Pennsylvania Assault Weapons Ban. Military-grade weapons have no place in civilian life and are unnecessary for self-defense. These guns were made to kill people quickly and efficiently. Proven once again on Saturday, Oct. 27.

A second bill (Senate Bill 18) would establish Extreme Risk Protection Orders. These orders would empower those close to an individual in crisis to ask a judge to temporarily remove the person's guns. The process focuses on persons exhibiting dangerous behavior and, where tried, they have been an effective means of temporarily preventing people in crisis from having access to guns — while respecting due process rights.

A woman places a stone, Monday Oct. 29, 2018, on a memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue, to one of the 11 people killed when a gunman opened fire during worship at the temple on Saturday in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The synagogue shooter publicly conveyed his extreme views of hatred on social media platforms. The extreme risk protection orders would give law enforcement a tool to step in, reach out and prevent horrific mass shootings. It is a commonsense approach.

Before opponents assail me for politicization in my effort to ban assault weapons, let me be clear: I do not wish to infringe upon any law-abiding citizens’ rights to own weapons.  However, while we seek to guarantee rights, keep in mind that the shooter had no trouble destroying lives and the protected rights of everyone in that synagogue.

I don’t have all the answers; nor do I know if the safeguards I suggest will work. If they fail to result in any improvements, then we can reevaluate. The growing gun violence epidemic has hit home, action is needed now.

While we hear calls for lawmakers to be “courageous” in the wake of these shootings, doing what’s right is not courageous. It’s simply the right thing to do.  

We cannot let the legacy of this event become another blindly complicit stain on our nation. We owe it to the victims and their families and friends. We owe it to their neighbors and colleagues. In their names, we must come together to protect others from their fate. 

Hate has no place here in the Steel City and Keystone state. We owe it to the victims to act.

Let’s continue to be Pittsburgh Strong and Pennsylvania Proud.

— Sen. Wayne Fontana is a Democrat representing Allegheny County