High-profile tragedies like the execution-style killings of the Rhoden family in Pike County and mass shootings starkly symbolized by their names — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Charleston, San Bernardino and others — fuel an emotionally-charged debate over gun culture in America.
But in Ohio, that debate has mostly been one-sided. Beginning with a concealed carry bill in 2004, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature has enacted a steady stream of pro-gun laws, and there is more in the pipeline.
Twice as many firearms-related bills introduced this session would expand gun rights or privileges as opposed to those toughening regulation. And even the sponsor of most of the bills calling for more controls says support is cool, even among his fellow Democrats.
“I would call it worse than lukewarm,” said Rep. Bill Patmon, D-Cleveland.
Patmon has called for universal background checks, criminal penalties for those who fail to keep firearms securely stored around children, and a ban on the manufacture, sale and display of imitation weapons.
That bill, he said, was inspired by the shooting deaths of John Crawford III, 22, in Beavercreek and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
Both held lookalike air guns when they were shot by police.
“A police officer is in danger if he can’t recognize whether or not it’s an imitation or a firearm,” Patmon said. “A child is in danger if in fact a police officer can’t make that recognition. So I tried to do my best to do something about it, because we should not lose another officer nor another civilian or young person.”
Of the 25 pieces of legislation dealing with firearms this session, 14 would make it easier for someone to possess a gun or face less scrutiny from law enforcement; seven would seek greater oversight of guns, regulate storage or restrict imitation firearms; and four are agnostic measures focused on issues like increased criminal penalties and giving active-duty military personnel on leave the ability to shoot game without a hunting license.
‘Nothing disastrous happened’
Suicides by firearm account for slightly more than 60 percent of all gun deaths and have been on the rise both in Ohio and nationally in recent years. However, the gun homicide rate in America dropped to 3.8 per 100,000 people in 2000 — nearly half what it was just seven years earlier — and dropped further to 3.43 in 2014, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of CDC data.
Dean Rieck, executive director of the Buckeye Firearms Association, said efforts to expand gun laws are always met with dire predictions from gun control advocates — predictions that he said haven’t come to pass.
“Once we had Ohio citizens carrying concealed weapons, everybody discovered that the sky was not going to fall,” said Rieck. “It made a lot of other legislation significantly easier… Nothing disastrous happened. We found out that people who were carrying concealed were doing so responsibly.”
But groups like the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence and the newly formed Dayton chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence say it’s time to put on the brakes.
“There are more than 90 people who are victims of gun violence every day in this country and that should not be normal,” said Jennifer Thorne, executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence. “Enough is enough.”
The piece of legislation getting the most attention from all sides is House Bill 48, sponsored by Rep. Ron Maag, R-Lebanon. The legislation would remove prohibitions against carrying concealed weapons into university buildings, day-care centers, school zones, private aircraft, government buildings and the public areas of airports and police stations.
Gun control advocates call the bill a “guns everywhere” proposal while gun rights supporters say it will make people safer by reducing “gun-victim zones.”
In his sponsor testimony, Maag said the bill corrects issues with Ohio’s original concealed carry law that “unnecessarily inhibits a law-abiding citizen’s ability to exercise their Second Amendment right.”
“It is meant to facilitate lawful gun ownership so that citizens are able to protect themselves and their family from crime,” he wrote.
The other bill being closely watched is Senate Bill 180, sponsored by Cincinnati area Republican Sen. Joe Uecker. The bill would permit people to store guns in vehicles on workplace parking lots and includes language to protect workers from retaliation by their employers if the weapons are stored properly.
Gun advocates say they expect the bill to pass.
Thorne said bills calling for more gun regulations typically wither without hearings in the State Government Committee, which is chaired by Maag.
“He’s really not interested from what we can tell from his actions and statements in advancing any common-sense legislation that would actually reduce gun violence,” she said.
Maag did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story.
More regulations may be coming, even without state legislative action. President Barack Obama issued an executive order in January calling for a more robust background check system and a requirement for background checks on people trying to purchase weaponry through trusts, corporations or other legal entities.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is finalizing rules.
‘They were just flat out opposed’
Ohio has a long history of conflict over gun laws, and Democrats haven’t always been the ones fighting for more restrictions.
More than a century after Ohio banned concealed weapons in 1859, the legislature approved an “affirmative defense,” which stated that citizens couldn’t be punished if they could prove they were justified going into a dangerous situation armed with a concealed gun.
At least four other concealed carry bills were introduced between 1995 and 2002 and killed — often because of Republican opposition, said James Irvine, president of the Buckeye Firearms Association.
“The big important people in the Republican Party — George Voinovich, Bob Taft and Jo Ann Davidson — those three individuals were all very against the right of people to defend their lives,” Irvine said. “They were just flat out opposed to it their whole careers.”
Voinovich served as governor from 1991-1998; Taft was the state’s chief executive from 1999-2006; Davidson was a member of the House from 1981-2000 and served as speaker from 1995-2000.
After many compromises and veto-proof majorities in both chambers, Ohio became the 46th state to approve concealed carry when Taft signed House Bill 12 in January 2004.
That April, Ohio’s county sheriffs began accepting applications and issuing licenses, but even those in favor of concealed carry were not happy with the result.
“As big of a game changer as it was, the bill was horrible. It was arguably the worst concealed carry bill any state’s ever passed,” Irvine said.
Among objections Irvine had with the original bill is that it didn’t prohibit local governments from enacting their own gun laws.
Irvine said many of the bills introduced over the last decade have been aimed at removing what he said were “poison pills” included in the 2004 legislation.
“We’ve been working on it for 12 years and we’ve got many more years to go at the rate we’re going,” he said.
In addition to pre-empting municipalities from enacting local gun statutes, the legislature in recent years added a “castle doctrine” provision to allow use of deadly force at home or in a personal vehicle if the occupants’ believe they are in danger of being hurt or killed regardless of an assailant’s intent.
Other rules removed media access to license holder names and reciprocity was expanded with other states. Changes were made to allow permit holders to carry a concealed weapon into a bar or restaurant as long as they were not drinking, and to enter school zones to drop off or pick up students.
The most recent Ohio gun measure to become law, signed in December of 2014, shortened the amount of training required to get a license from 12 hours to eight and made it easier for non-residents to get concealed carry permits.
All 50 states now allow some form of concealed carry, and since Obama’s election, the number of citizens with concealed handgun permits nearly tripled to more than 12.8 million, according to the Crime Prevention Research Center.
The center calculated nearly a half million Ohioans — almost 5 percent of the adult population – had a concealed carry license in March of last year
Another game changer
Allowing permit holders to bring concealed weapons onto college campuses or day-care centers — allowed under House Bill 48 — would mark another game-changing hurdle for gun rights activists like Jeffry Smith.
A firearms instructor from Cincinnati, Smith has been organizing open carry walks at Ohio’s public universities to “shine a brighter spotlight” on the prohibition against concealed carry on college campuses.
University students and employees in Ohio are at physical risk because they can’t defend themselves against criminals seeking prey in a “gun free zone,” he said.
Smith started his walks in 2014 and has visited the University of Cincinnati, Ohio State University, the University of Akron, Bowling Green State University and recently Miami University.
Ohio is one of 19 states with an outright ban against concealed carry at post-secondary institutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Already, at least eight states have approved campus carry, but in 23 other states the decision is left up to the college or university.
Maag’s bill would allow universities to establish the rules, something Smith opposes because he thinks most would continue the ban, which he says disarms law-abiding citizens “for the criminal’s pleasure.”
“The same responsible concealed carry people off campus will be that way on and the experience of other states shows that,” he said.
In written testimony before the Ohio House, a spokesman for the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus said “gun-free” policies keep the country’s colleges among the safest places in society — contrary to some perceptions following mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008.
Andy Pelosi, the group’s executive director, cited a campus homicide rate of just .1 per 100,000 enrollment compared to general population rate of 4.4 in 2013.
The Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors and the Ohio Faculty Council also oppose the bill.
Carol Loranger, Faculty Senate president at Wright State University, said her group has not taken a formal position on the bill. But Loranger said allowing guns on campus “would have a chilling effect on the sorts of intellectual discourse that go on in classrooms, particularly in liberal arts classrooms where we discuss ideas.
“If you’re dealing with uncomfortable subjects and all you have is your words, nobody gets hurt if things do become heated,” she said.
The bill passed the House 68-29 and is pending in a Senate committee.
Thorne said her group’s successes are usually defensive in nature. Opposition last session helped knock a “stand your ground” provision out of another bill, she noted.
For the most part, those favoring tougher gun laws in Ohio struggle to be heard.
Colleen Kelsey, an organizer of the new Dayton Chapter of the Brady Campaign, said her group formed out of frustration with legislators who are willing to listen to the gun lobby but not the parents in their districts.
“It seems that the large lobbyists are controlling the decision making and the public is being ignored,” said Kelsey, who lives in Oakwood. “Currently 90 percent of all Americans want universal background checks. We are all for this, yet it continues to be denied.”