Since 2014, 80 percent of Pittsburgh’s homicide victims have been black, and firearms have been involved 86 percent of the time, the Public Source reports. Yet, from the perspective of some members of the community, it took a high profile mass-shooting at a synagogue for lawmakers to act.
After the October 2018 shooting that killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue, city council members in Pittsburgh acted swiftly, despite inaction by the state legislature. The council earlier this month passed a slate of measures that banned some assault style weapons, as well as most armor-piercing ammunition and high-capacity magazines.
The new measures also give courts power to confiscate guns from city residents deemed to be an “extreme risk” to themselves or others. Violators face a fine of up to $1,000; failure to make payment is punishable by up to 90 days in jail.
These new measures could lead to further distress, however, within Pittsburgh’s black community.
“Any ordinance like this… always lands on the backs of young African Americans,” Rev. De Neice Welch, president of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, told the Public Source.
Welch, a supporter of gun control measures, is among many who reasonably fear that these laws could lead to young black men being wrongfully criminalized, especially those who possess firearms — legally, or not. “The phrase, ‘I’m in fear for my life,’ has literally given [officers] permission to fire at will,” says Welch.
Black gun owners are at greater risk than their non-black counterparts. One tragic example of the peril was the 2016 fatal police shooting in Minnesota of Philando Castile, who was shot during a traffic stop after informing a police officer that he was in possession of a legal firearm.
While enhanced gun safety laws are something generally to applaud, the black community in Pittsburgh has voiced concerns about the downsides. Many local leaders worry that these new laws could lead to over-policing in their community, which in turn could lead to more tragedies like the fatal police shooting of black teenager Antwon Rose II. Rose, 17, unarmed and fleeing East Pittsburgh cops during a traffic stop in the summer of 2018, was shot in the back numerous times. Michael Rosfeld, the officer charged with killing Rose, was acquitted last month.
There’s also concern about newly enacted laws that apply only to the city of Pittsburgh and not to the state of Pennsylvania at large. In a recent report by CityLab, stringent gun restrictions imposed in Washington, D.C., provided historical parallels for some concerns expressed by Pittsburgh’s black community. Per CityLab’s Brentin Mock:
Many black organizations and leaders opposed the D.C. gun laws out of fear that they could further criminalize their communities. And they were right to be concerned: In 1993, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that African Americans were arrested at five times the rate of whites for gun possession, despite white men owning guns at much higher rates. However, the handgun ban in D.C. appeared to be serving its essential purpose: One study found that the gun-control law “coincided with an abrupt decline” in gun-related homicides and suicides.
Mock says the lesson that Pittsburgh will have to learn is “how to create laws that will take more illegal guns off the streets and save more lives, while ensuring that black people don’t become criminalized collateral damage in the process.” So while there is a real need for gun laws that make sense, there’s also a serious need to reform the ways these laws are enforced.
In the state capital, Harrisburg, legislators plan to introduce two police reform bills later this month to address many of the concerns raised by Pittsburgh’s black community. The measures, co-sponsored by Pennsylvania State Rep. Summer Lee (D), would modify the state’s deadly force policies, require that law enforcement agencies keep personnel records related to the circumstances of a police officer’s firing or resignation, and appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the use of deadly force involving a police officer.
The decision to focus on police accountability and reform, as opposed to banning certain guns and ammunition like the city council did, was a deliberate one for Lee.
“The approach we have to take is completely different than the city’s or even the nation’s because none are going to get at the heart of what we need — which is resources and access,” she told ThinkProgress. “Realistically, in black communities, if we have bad cops on the streets, then that’s gun violence.”
A 2018 study appearing in Public Administration Review found that although black people make up just 13% of the U.S. population, they account for 28% of the people killed by police. According to MappingPoliceViolence.org, from 2013 to 2018, 165 people were killed by police in Pennsylvania. Of those, 52 or about 32%, were black. This, despite the fact that black people make up only 12% of Pennsylvania’s population.
Despite these statistics, police reform measures are incredibly tough to pass, especially as the Trump administration, in its scaleback of Obama-era reform programs, sets the national tone on policing.
“The type of gun violence that you see resistance action around, that you see legislative action around … it’s never the type of gun violence that affects the black community,” Lee said.
Black Pittsburghers can’t help but wonder why the same outrage that followed the Tree of Life shooting isn’t extended to their communities when African Americans are killed. It’s a frustration that is reflected nationwide. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018 resulted in the deaths of 17 people, the mostly white student survivors gained national attention. Black gun control activists were grateful for the renewed focus on stemming gun violence, but many wondered why it had taken so long for the issue to garner that degree of attention.
The synagogue shooting also highlighted telling disparities in police behavior. On Twitter last week, Lee noted the way Pittsburgh police managed to de-escalate the situation, ultimately apprehending the white killer, Robert Bowers, and taking him into custody alive, even while Rose died months earlier during a police shooting.
Although the two cases involve two separate police departments — the City of Pittsburgh Police Department, which responded to Tree of Life, and the East Pittsburgh Police Department, which responded to Rose and has since disbanded — the point black Pittsburghers raise time and again is that they are criminalized regardless of municipality.
“It is undeniable that when it comes to unarmed police killings, black and brown people are killed at a higher rate,” Lee said.
Lee, who represents the neighborhood where Rose was raised, hopes the state measures will address the issue of limited resources and inadequate training that small community police departments, like the one in East Pittsburgh, often struggle with. Indeed, much of the proposed legislation appears directly related to the circumstances that allowed Rosfeld to walk away with a not guilty verdict after he fatally shot Rose.
Under Pennsylvania law, an officer can use deadly force on an armed person even if they are running away, regardless of whether the person shows an intent to kill or inflict harm. Rosfeld testified that, as Rose was fleeing the car, he thought he saw a threatening gesture. Although Rose was ultimately found to be unarmed, the fear of a weapon in this case was enough to justify the use of deadly force, according to a use-of-force expert who testified during the trial. Under the legislation proposed by Lee, police would be required to use de-escalation and non-lethal procedures before deadly force.
“We knew what we were up against,” Lee said of the Rosfeld verdict. “We did not expect there to be justice because there never has been,” she said. “Out of our tragedy, what can we do? We saw clear instances where we could legislate a change.”
This determination often comes across as a personal burden for Lee, who speaks with passion about her connections to Antwon Rose’s neighborhood, and the responsibility she feels as its elected lawmaker.
“If I had not run, then Antwon would’ve never been represented by someone who grew up in his community,” she said, adding that those connections are important in ensuring that community members impacted by gun violence and over-policing are “centered” in policy solutions.
Lee and her fellow legislators plan to hold a rally in support of the measures later this month. The proposed bills could face tough odds in the Republican-controlled House, where Lee is the first black woman from southwest Pennsylvania to serve.
In an emotional Twitter thread last week, she announced the proposed bills and made mention of her late constituent.
“I’m not just someone from Antwon’s neighborhood, I’m also his state representative,” she tweeted. “[I’ll] introduce a bill to change the PA police use of force policy. If it’s legal for police to shoot an unarmed kid in the back, it’s time to change the law.”