Momentum appears to be building for the state legislature to take action on laws aimed at improving public safety in the wake of the Oregon District mass shooting this month.
A survey conducted this week by a coalition of Ohio newspapers - including the Dayton Daily News - found 10 Republican legislators and 31 Democratic members of the Ohio General Assembly saying they support Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s “red flag” proposal.
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Also this week Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron, and five other Democratic legislators joined Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley at a Thursday town hall meeting in Dayton where they called for adoption of that law and other gun safety measures, including background checks for most gun transactions.
“We’re excited about what Gov. DeWine is saying, were anxious to see the legislation and we’re going to be working toward common sense gun legislation,” Whaley said after the meeting attended by about 130 people.
DeWine and First Lady Fran DeWine visited Dayton’s Oregon District on the evening of the day Connor Betts, 24, of Bellbrook, killed nine people before being shot to death by police in the popular downtown district.
“As Fran and I climbed up to the platform and looked out there were people as far as the eye could see. Some in the crowd were angry, and I understand that anger,” DeWine said in announcing his 17-point plan on August 6. “Some chanted, ‘Do something,’ and they were right. It is time to do something, and that is exactly what we are going to do.”
DeWine’s proposal includes increased penalties for breaking gun laws, expanded background checks, improved access to mental health care and so-called “red flag” safety protection orders that would allow firearms to be temporarily removed under court order from people who are deemed dangerous to themselves or others. Democrats have similar proposals pending in the legislature.
Whaley said she is optimistic that at least some of what DeWine has proposed will pass, even though the Republican-dominated legislature has proven reluctant to adopt gun restrictions and has passed multiple laws loosening restrictions on concealed carry and other gun laws. Whaley said she is taking DeWine “at his word.”
“He said, ‘Look, Nan, I’m not going to put something forward that I can’t get through the legislature,’” Whaley said. “So I think what he presents is something that we’ll be able to move through this legislature. It’s going to be difficult. But I know mayors across the state are in solidarity with him, there’s legislators (supporting him). I think we have more legislators to gain.”
“We don’t want another community to go through what Dayton went through on August 4,” she said.
Newspapers survey legislators
Six Ohio news organizations, including this one, last week asked all Ohio legislators if they support DeWine’s red flag law proposal and what they think is the most critical action the legislature can take to reduce the number of mass shootings. The legislature is in recess but the newspapers received responses from nearly all 33 senators and almost two-thirds of 99 House members.
In the Senate 16 members — evenly divided by party — support the governor’s red flag proposal. In the House 23 Democrats and two Republicans said they support it.
State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering said she supports all of Gov. DeWine’s proposals and considers the red flag and universal background check proposals “to be the most urgent and potentially most life-saving.”
“In addition, I support a ban on high capacity magazines and assault weapons. These are probably more effective at federal level,” Lehner said.
The Dayton region is represented by Republicans in both the House and Senate, with the exception of State Rep. Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton, who said he supports DeWine’s proposal but wants to go further.
“I would start with the stuff we have talked about: doing a better job around mental illness and keeping guns away from people that have exhibited issues around mental health. I think it is to some degree access to the ancillary things that make weapons more potentially deadly, like a 100-round dual (ammunition) drum. I think that is ridiculous,” Strahorn said.
“I know some people want to get rid of assault rifles all together. I think that is a possibility. I think that is a hard sell politically. I think a compromise is a heightened level of scrutiny around acquisition of a weapon like that,” Strahorn said.
Of those surveyed, only State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg said outright that he is against DeWine’s red flag proposal.
“The proposal lacks necessary due process,” Antani said. “We must address the growing culture of violence in our society, all of it. We must create a comprehensive system to get treatment to those who have violent tendencies.”
The other Ohio legislators surveyed about DeWine’s red flag proposal said they were uncertain, are reviewing it or didn’t respond.
“Anything we can do within the constitutional rights of Ohioans to keep them safe is important and needs to be acted upon,” said State Rep. Rick Perales, R-Beavercreek. “Along with Governor DeWine’s proposal, the legislature will continue to find different ways to fight these acts of evil. Towards this end, I have been working with school officials on a bill that will provide more dedicated resources for our children’s safety.”
RELATED: Debate focuses on guns at work
State Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, said he supports DeWine’s plan to increase access to mental health care but before he votes on the red flag law he wants to make sure it doesn’t “take away people’s rights,” he said.
Rep. J. Todd Smith, R-Jackson Twp., said he wants to “minimize the likelihood of these tragedies from occurring in the future while also protecting our Second Amendment rights.”
State Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, is awaiting legislation on DeWine’s proposal before weighing in. Huffman said he takes gun crime seriously and voted to successfully overturn then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2018 veto of a bill that strengthened penalties against “straw man” purchases, which is the illegal practice of a person buying a gun for someone else who isn’t allowed to have one. That law, which took effect after the veto override, also shifts the burden of proof in self-defense cases from defendants to prosecutors, allows off-duty police officers to carry firearms and phases in pre-emption of many local firearms restrictions.
“Although no law can stop every threat, as an emergency room doctor I strongly believe we must continue to review our policies on mental health, while balancing that with every person’s constitutional right to due process,” Huffman said. “I believe Governor’s DeWine’s safety protection order proposal goes a long way in addressing those constitutional concerns.”
Legislators also face pressure from Ohioans for Gun Safety, a group collecting signatures for a ballot issue asking voters to expand background checks for gun purchases. Organizers plan to ask legislators to approve the proposal themselves but if they do not the group will continue to gather signatures to get it on the ballot in 2020, said Dennis Willard, spokesman.
“Since the tragic shootings in Dayton and El Paso Ohioans are galvanized in their support for action,” Willard said. “We believe background checks for gun safety, closing the loopholes on private sales and gun shows, is the simplest, quickest way to reduce gun violence and save lives.”
Citizens urged to contact legislators
At the Democratic legislators’ town hall at the Dayton Metro Library, Whaley and the legislators present called on the audience to hold their elected representatives accountable for their votes on guns.
Whaley singled out Huffman, Antani, Perales, Smith, State Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, and State Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., and said “all of them have pretty bad votes on guns.”
“It’s time to start calling them. It’s time to start saying, ‘we’re watching’ when this starts moving. They have direct input because they are in this community,” Whaley said. “We have to get organized and we have to get to work for this region to make sure that the people in Dayton, at least in the Dayton area, we cannot have any of those folks voting against us on common sense gun legislation.”
Asked for their reaction, Antani, Huffman and Plummer all criticized Whaley for “politicizing” the issue.
“The list of Republican elected officials who she has named, Antani, Butler, Plummer, Perales, Smith and Huffman will continue to lead and ensure everyone’s constitutional rights are protected,” Plummer said. “We all want a safe community for our children. And yes mayor, we are watching as well.”
With a July Quinnipiac Poll showing that 90 percent of Ohioans support universal background checks, Whaley said she sees nothing wrong with urging voters to contact their legislators about their votes on guns.
“It’s too bad that getting contacted by their constituents causes these elected representatives to react this way,” Whaley said. ” We heard loud and clear that people in Dayton want us to do something to prevent future shootings - I am just following up on my commitment to the community to take action.”
Mayor Waley joins others on CBS
Last week, CBS News sat down with Whaley, Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer and Parkland, Fla., Mayor Christine Hunschofsky at Dayton City Hall to discuss the aftermath of mass shootings in their communities and what can be done to try to prevent them.
“It’s a fraternity no one ever wanted to join,” Dyer said. “There’s no playbook — there’s nothing that prepares a mayor for this type of incident.”
On May 31 a Virginia Beach employee shot and killed 12 people and wounded others in a municipal building.
Guns are a divisive issue, but mayors and elected across the country need to come to the table and get others to do the same to figure out what they have in common, Dyer said.
“The first thing we have to do is start talking to each other,” said Dyer.
The conversation about solutions to mass shootings is over before it begins if people take hard-line positions and oversimplify the issue, said Hunschofsky.
“I don’t think there is one answer to that question (of how to prevent the next mass shooting), and that’s where I often get frustrated with how these topics get covered in the media,” she said. “If there was an easy answer, someone would have come up with it long ago, and it would be done.”
After 17 people died in the Feb. 14, 2018 shootings at a Parkland high school, one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, Florida lawmakers passed a new law that gives police the power to remove guns from people who through due process are deemed a danger to themselves or others, Hunschofsky said.
The state legislature also raised the legal age to buy a firearm to 21 from 18 and imposed a three-day waiting period to purchase firearms.
Universal background checks on gun purchases and risk-protection orders are overwhelmingly popular, so that’s a good place to start discussions about next steps, Hunschofsky said.
Florida lawmakers visited the scene in Parkland after the shooting, spoke with survivors and victims’ loved ones and attended funerals, which made a powerful impression on them, she said.
“Seeing the human toll affected them and I think that spurred the resolve to show bipartisan leadership,” she said.
Florida law pre-empts cities from passing new laws restricting firearms, but the city of Parkland hired additional school resource officers to make schools and students safer, she said. The country wants its leaders to talk to each other and work together toward solutions, she said.
Whaley said Ohio law also preempts cities in the state from imposing restrictions on firearms, though the law has been challenged by the city of Columbus.
Whaley said her goal and focus is to get DeWine’s plan passed in its entirety. Failing that, Whaley said she will push to get the reforms placed on the statewide ballot.
This month, 256 mayors sent a letter urging the U.S. Senate to approve two bills that “would greatly strengthen” the background check system. The letter, from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, says the bills approved by the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives would require background checks for all firearm purchases, prohibit unlicensed gun transfers through secondary sales and would increase law enforcement’s ability to trace gun crimes.
“What we’ve seen just this week is mayors quickly moved around the issue of gun control, because it affects our communities so directly,” Whaley said.
Reporters from the Akron Beacon Journal, Canton Repository, Cincinnati Enquirer, Toledo Blade and Columbus Dispatch contributed to this report.
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