On November 2nd, 2018, I had the honor to interview the Pennsylvania Democratic Leader of the Senate, State Senator Jay Costa, regarding the Squirrel Hill Shooting. I would like to thank him again for this. I would also like to say that I have been interviewing people in government for over a year now and this was the most difficult one for me to do. Throughout the whole interview, this politician you could tell was just a normal person like anyone else. You could tell how he felt and saw that he was genuinely hurt by this made it even more difficult for me to talk to someone about this.
Matthew Carvalho: The first thing I want to talk to you about it, I was told today you were at a few of the services for the victims of the Squirrel Hill shooting.
Senator Costa: Yes. I’ve been to a number of them. Monday, the Cecil and David Rosenthal, and it ended today, and then yesterday with the Mr. and Mrs. Simon, and then today with [the] Rose Mallinger services. Particularly the Mallinger family I’ve known for the better part of fifty years, growing up with Mrs. Mallinger’s children, grade school and high school and beyond that. And the Rosenthal family, I certainly knew them very well as well, David and Cecil’s sister Michelle, a good friend for a number of years, probably the last twenty years, Michelle’s husband Bob. I mean this is a good family friend, but the Mallingers have been very close to our family for a number of years, for probably close to fifty years. So yes, I did attend, and it was a very emotional, very sad service.
Carvalho: I would like to ask, obviously it was a sad time at these services, but what was it that was said at these? What was the message to take away from all of this that happened in the last week?
Costa: I think the consistent message through all these services was that this hatred that has been displayed against our friends in Squirrel Hill and in the Jewish community will not knock them down, will not keep them down, and that they will survive, and that the Tree of Life Synagogue and the congregations within it will survive even stronger. What’s been beautiful, and I think everyone has recognized and acknowledged is the tremendous support of the Pittsburgh community and the surrounding community and even across the country. The way and the manner in which folks have rallied around this neighborhood, this community, this congregation, and our friends of Jewish faith here. That’s been remarkable, and I think that’s been very moving to folks, and, but not surprising, that’s what we do here in Pittsburgh and that’s how we do it. But I think the most significant thing is that this will not defeat them. It will only enhance them to go forward and to rebuild and then to continue to build their congregation in this region.
Carvalho: Now when this happened last weekend, first, what was exactly going through your mind when you first found out on the news, what were you doing, and what did you have to do throughout the day for these events? What were you having to do for them?
Costa: I got a call from my daughter, who is a nurse at Children’s Hospital, who indicated that she was informed that- she was not at work, but she got a call that they might be called into work because there was an active shooter in the synagogue in Squirrel Hill. I immediately called my brother, Guy, who serves as the Chief of Operations for the City of Pittsburgh, so I knew he would be there. He answered, and I said “Guy, I understand there is a mass shooting going on” and he said “Yes there is, it’s bad. I’ll call you back”. At that time, I was on my way to the Firefighter’s Hall in the city of Pittsburgh, a local union firefighter hall there, and they were giving out like ten thousand coats. It was a Saturday morning that they give out the coats to all the kids across in the city. It’s a great program. I’m there with the firefighter guys and the families receiving the coats, and because the fire [fighters] are a part of the first responders, they were sort of in constant communication for the first maybe half hour or so. That’s when we learned of the significant impact and the nature of the horrific event. So, I left there, and that was maybe ten minutes from Tree of Life, and I went up there, and my brother called me back and I went up to- told me where the command post was. I went there, and I was there with myself, the mayor, our county executive, Rich Fitzgerald, my brother, Councilman Dan, Chief of Staff Gilman, and Councilman Corey O’Connor. The five or six of us were sort of at that command post, and then the mayor was being briefed by the first responder folks and the folks in charge at the scene. At that point in time, it was the medics, it was the fire guys, it was the SWAT team, all those folks. So, the morning went on, and the afternoon continued, more people came to the site and were there. We were comforting some of the folks, who were there. Michelle Rosenthal, for example, came to the site because she’s friends with all of us and she was with us and we learn of what had occurred, and more importantly, we learning at that time of her two brothers were still there and they could not reach them and them kind of thought- they knew at that point, by 12:30, one o’clock, that very likely one, if not both of her brothers, would have been murdered. So, that was difficult. But we were getting reports of different things going on and different stages of what was taking place. Searching for bombs, searching for this, going for that, clearing the building, in fact, they caught the suspect, etcetera. Every step of the way they were reporting back to the mayor, and the chief of operations, my brother, and the county executive, and chief of staff. So, we were there through that process. Much later in the afternoon, by this point in time a number of us, myself, Councilman O’Connor, Congressman Lamb, Country Executive Fitzgerald, a few others, we walked the streets of Squirrel Hill because Tree of Life is only, maybe three or four blocks away from the heart of Squirrel Hill business district, near Murray and Forbes Avenue, the heart of Squirrel Hill. So, we walked up there, met with folks, talked with folks and had coffee, etcetera. Then later we went back, and we went to- and then there was the prayer service that took place at six o’clock at the church upon Forbes and Murray, and did that and stood with the thousands of people in the rain where the students from Allderdice High School, my high school, did a prayer service which was outstanding and very moving and so it was a rough day. Then Sunday, we did some briefings with the FBI and those folks, and then from there it’s been visiting folks and attending services Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and finally today. That’s a longwinded answer to your question, I apologize.
Carvalho: And that’s understandable. Now with this attack, this is one of the many shootings that we’ve had recently, do you think that this is just another call for gun reform? Do you think there should be some sort of change in how-?
Costa: Absolutely. Yes. We need to do a number of things and we can start where I work in the General Assembly. We need to take steps to do a couple of things. One of the measures and we need to put into place, reasonable, and really responsible gun control measures. One of the ones that probably would have most directly impacted this situation was the assault weapon ban that my colleague, Senator Wayne Fontana, had introduced. He did that on the heels of the Parkland shooting. That bill was introduced and went now where, and Republican colleagues in the Senate simply refused to even talk about it. We need to talk about limiting the availability of assault weapons, which in my view, are weapons of war and are used specifically for that purpose and have no place in the hands of civilians for any purpose. So, I think there’s no question, we need to move forward on that. There’re several other measures that we need to look at. For example, one of the measures has been purchasing one gun a month. I don’t understand how people need to buy more than one weapon a month. But, even that modest change, or reasonable change, we can’t get folks to do that. Reasonable, universal background checks, something we need to do in Pennsylvania. Limiting the number of magazine clips that you can purchase. Eliminating bump stocks that were used in the Las Vegas shooting. We can’t even get something as simple as bump stocks eliminated. So those are just a handful of four, five, six different things that I think we need to do as we go forward. Enhancing penalties on straw purchasers, we don’t necessarily see that with folks who are dealing with issues of mental illness for example, but we do see that in other types of activities in our neighborhoods and our communities where folks are abusing weapons, who are using weapons, and whether it be drug trades or whatever type of trade they might be engaged in. You have these folks who straw purchase stuff, whether it be individuals who are drug addicts who are doing that to purchase a product to sustain their addiction. Whatever the reason happening, we must take steps in order to impale that practice. So those are examples of some of the things, minimal, we should be doing, we should be talking about as we go forward.
Carvalho: The suspect, Robert Bowers, pleads not guilty. Now there have been some people who said that he should get the death penalty. As a Democrat and as a person, do you believe that if he is proven guilty, do you think he should be subject to the death penalty?
Costa: I believe in this instance, I think the death penalty is warranted.
Carvalho: It is what? Warranted?
Costa: It is warranted in this situation. I think there are very few instances where I believe it will be warranted, but this is one of them.