Area lawmaker hopeful Ohio gun bill will pass this year

Though little time remains in the Ohio General Assembly’s lame-duck session, prospects for passing legislation to increase penalties for repeat violators of gun possession laws are better than for many other bills.

State Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, introduced House Bill 383 in August 2021 and it has been in the House Government Oversight Committee ever since. It came up for hearings in October 2021, December 2021 and May 2022, but not again until Nov. 17, and has not received a committee vote. In the course of hearings he replaced the original with a closely related substitute bill.

But Koehler said House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, told him it could get a committee vote Tuesday and pass the full House later in the week. Indications from the Senate are positive, he said; but in that chamber the bill would have only about three weeks to get through committee hearings and a floor vote if it’s to reach Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk by year’s end.

DeWine has voiced support for HB 383 several times. When asked if he would support any gun restrictions in addition to the several bills he has signed loosening gun laws, DeWine regularly blames “a small group of repeat violent offenders” for many of the state’s gun crimes — the group HB 383 would target.

“These are not law-abiding gun owners,” Koehler said.

The bill is aimed at people “under disability” — already legally barred from possessing a firearm — who are caught with a gun. Those “disabilities” are:

- Being a fugitive from justice.

- Having been indicted or convicted for a violent felony.

- Having been indicted or convicted for a felony drug crime.

- Being a drug addict or alcoholic.

- Having been found mentally incompetent.

If a juvenile was tried and convicted as an adult for a felony offense, the bill would apply to future gun possession charges against them, Koehler said.

Currently illegal possession of a gun while “under disability” is a third-degree felony. But those aren’t always punished with jail time, he said. Knowing that an offender may be quickly released discourages people from testifying against them, Koehler said.

His bill would keep illegal gun possession a third-degree felony for first and second offenses, but for the second offense would require jail time. And under most “disabilities,” a third offense would become a second-degree felony.

The exception is being a drug addict or alcoholic, which is not determined by a formal court ruling. Gun possession in that case would always remain a third-degree felony, Koehler said.

“I have colleagues who fought me not to escalate (the) penalty on reasons for losing your gun rights that were not decisions by a judge/jury,” he said via text.

Koehler said he accepted that provision to move the bill forward.

Firearm “disabilities” can be relieved by petitioning the courts. That wouldn’t change under this bill.

Opponents who submitted testimony against the bill this month include a gun rights group opposed to increasing penalties for the possession — as opposed to the misuse — of firearms.

The Office of the Ohio Public Defender testified against the bill saying it will lead to lengthy, costly prison sentences for ex-felons who live in poor, high-crime neighborhoods who may have a gun for self defense.

“Locking up individuals for the sole purpose of keeping them away from firearms is simply not good public policy,” says testimony from the public defender’s office. “It will not make Ohioans safer, and it will only result in a bigger bill for Ohio’s taxpayers.”

Those who previously testified in support of the bill include Clark County Prosecutor Dan Driscoll, Springfield Police Chief Lee Graf and the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

According to the state Legislative Service Commission bill analysis, third-degree felonies now carry a fine of up to $10,000 and a possible nine to 36 months in prison. Second-degree felonies have a fine of up to $15,000 with two to eight years of prison time, while first-degree felonies carry a fine of up to $20,000 and three to 11 years in prison.

The average time served for illegal gun possession in 2016, the most recent year for which data was available, was a year and nine months, according to the LSC. That’s lower than the average time for all third-degree felonies, which was two years and four months.

According to an LSC fiscal analysis, HB 383 would put offenders in jail for three to seven more years, at a cost of $95,948 to $238,276 each.

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