Shooting Blanks | Pittsburgh City Paper

Shooting Blanks

Pittsburgh City Councilor Doug Shields says he can't wait for the day when someone is charged under the city's lost- and stolen-gun ordinance. 

"I'm looking forward to the day that we have an actual case," says Shields, one of the bill's main authors and supporters. 

But apparently, no one in the city's police bureau is on a hair-trigger. One year after the ordinance took effect, not a single person has been charged under it.

The measure requires gun-owners whose firearms are lost or stolen to report the incident within 72 hours. Similar to a 2008 Philadelphia ordinance, the measure seeks to curtail "straw purchasing" -- weapons being bought and turned over to criminals who couldn't legally acquire them. When such weapons are discovered at a crime scene, their original owners often insist the weapon must have been stolen. 

In fact, Shields says, "I'm very curious why the offense hasn't been cited yet. We've had a number of shootings where guns have been discovered, and it is odd that it hasn't come up once."

According to Sgt. Shirley Epperson of the police department's firearms tracking bureau, city officers are waiting for "a protocol for how police should proceed" before enforcing the ordinance. But city solicitor Daniel Regan says the police should have all they need: "They're not waiting on any type of protocol from us to proceed. If the facts ... of a particular case call for an individual to be charged, they will be."

Apparently, then, in the past year police simply haven't turned up a weapon belonging to a city gun-owner who didn't report it missing. But "[a]t some point," Shields predicts, "a gun is going to show up at a crime scene, and we're going to find out that it was stolen three months ago and the owner didn't report it."

When that happens, the ordinance itself could end up in court. In fact, the National Rifle Association has challenged the ordinance once already, suing to overturn it last spring. But the case misfired: Common pleas court Judge Stanton Wettick tossed out the suit, ruling that -- since no one had been charged with the offense yet -- nobody had standing to challenge it. 

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hailed the decision, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the city "could start enforcing [the law] shortly. ... We're going to forge ahead."

Shields wishes it would, even though he knows that could result in a legal challenge. 

"I want [gun-owners] to take us to court with the NRA by their side, so we can watch this law stand up as a good piece of common-sense gun legislation," Shields says. "I can't wait for that day."

He may have to. 


Pittsburgh took its shot at a straw-purchase measure after Philadelphia passed a similar ordinance in early 2008. The measure passed council by a 6-1 margin; Ravenstahl allowed it to become law without his signature. 

Since then, similar ordinances have cropped up across the state, especially around Pittsburgh. Shields says he and fellow councilor Bruce Kraus have been visiting various communities, speaking in favor of the measure. So far, 19 communities have passed similar laws, among them: West Mifflin; Castle Shannon; Braddock; Wilkinsburg; Clairton; Erie; Allentown; Reading and Harrisburg.

"This has truly been a grassroots movement to get these ordinances passed," says Shields. "People try to paint this as a Philadelphia and Pittsburgh problem, but it's not. It's an issue that affects and matters to every community across the commonwealth.

"We know the legislators in Harrisburg are dominated by the NRA lobbyist," he continues, "but we're going to keep passing these ordinances to put the squeeze on them."

That's exactly the tactic Kim Stolfer finds so objectionable. 

Stolfer says it's only fitting that the city hasn't prosecuted anyone under the ordinance. The city ordinance "isn't about stopping crime," says Stolfer, who chairs Firearms Owners Against Crime, a gun-rights group. "They're trying to extort action from the state legislature to enact even more restrictive gun laws than we already have."

Stolfer, who spoke against the city's ordinance during hearings, says that Pennsylvania already has a slew of gun laws, many of which aren't properly enforced. There are already laws against knowingly buying a gun for someone who is legally barred from purchasing it, Stolfer says. He points out that the Brady Campaign, an advocacy group that favors more gun control, ranks Pennsylvania's gun laws as the 10th most restrictive in the United States. (True enough, but even Pennsylvania scores only 26 out of 100 points on the Brady Campaign's scale.)

"Even if I report my firearm missing within 24 hours, how on earth does that prevent a crime from occurring with my stolen gun?" asks Stolfer. "They call this common-sense gun legislation, but it doesn't actually do anything to stop a crime from happening. Where's the common sense?

"This is not an issue based in how can we make society safer. It's a perpetuation of smoke and mirrors meant only to try and force even more gun laws."

Shields counters that he knows this isn't necessarily a piece of anti-crime legislation, but more in the realm of public health.

"I'm not a fool. I know that this legislation won't stop crime from happening," says Shields. "But maybe we can prevent an unnecessary injury or a teen suicide.

"I know I can't stop a criminal," he adds, "but maybe I can stop a kid from accidentally shooting his brother with laws like this."