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Sen. Wayne Fontana: Gun violence on Pittsburgh’s doorstep

November 27, 2018

Writing today with a very heavy heart.

Far too many times we have 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, last Saturday morning, that peace was invaded. Bigotry, violence and terror walked in. 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 our doorstep. 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 heads 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, Fla., 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 Oct. 27.

A second bill (Senate Bill 18) would establish Extreme Risk Protection Orders, which would empower those close to an individual in crisis to ask a judge to temporarily remove the person’s guns. The process focuses on people 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.

The synagogue shooter conveyed his hatred on social media. Extreme risk protection orders would give law enforcement a tool to step in and attempt to prevent horrific mass shootings. It is a common-sense 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 this 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 re-evaluate. But, the growing gun violence epidemic has hit home. Action is needed now.

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.

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