Monday, May 07, 2001

Concealed weapons debate heats up

Ohio bill faces obstacles

By Travis James Tritten
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — When the security alarm sounded, store manager Steve Anderson thought it would be another routine case of shoplifting. But in seconds the scene took a violent turn. Cornered, a suspected shoplifter pulled a knife. Mr. Anderson dodged the blade twice and then watched helplessly as the attacker ran from the store.

        Since that incident two years ago, Mr. Anderson has carried a gun to work nearly every day for protection. Although he feels safer, hefaces a different danger — he risks being arrested for carrying a concealed weapon under current Ohio law.

        But, under legislation proposed by a Cincinnati lawmaker, Mr. Anderson and other Ohio adults would be allowed to carry hidden guns into churches, grocery stores and shopping malls.

        The bill in the House Criminal Justice Committee is modeled after a Vermont gun law considered the most permissive in the country.

        Any adult could carry a weapon under the bill. It would not require a permit, firearms training or background checks beyond those required by federal law. Supporters, including the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Cincinnati, say a new law is needed because Ohioans should be allowed to protect themselves.

A rights advocate

               “We have a constitutional right to bear arms. Larry Flynt has a right to put out smut and some people may not like that, but it's a right whether we like it or not,” Mr. Brinkman said.

        Mr. Brinkman and other proponents dismissed claims by police who argue the bill would arm felons and other criminals. He said they already carry guns, despite federal laws that require background checks on gun purchases.

        “Shootings are happening now without this,” Mr. Brinkman said.

        Law enforcement groups aren't convinced. They say the bill would put more weapons on the streets and make their job more dangerous.

        “You don't know who the good guy is or who the bad guy is — everyone has guns,” said John Gilchrist, legislative counsel for the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police.

Police opposed

               Under the bill, no state law would stop violent criminals from carrying hidden guns. That would include people with outstanding arrest warrants for felony crimes including rape and murder, said Mike Taylor of the state Fraternal Order of Police.

        Police worry confrontations with armed suspects wanted for such crimes could become violent, putting the lives of officers at risk, Mr. Taylor said.

        Mr. Brinkman contends that federal law keeps weapons out of the hands of violent criminals by preventing felons, and people with a history of mental illness or domestic violence, from buying guns.

        Police argue that current Ohio gun law is necessary because it, along with the federal Brady Law, works to deter criminals from carrying weapons.

        “There would be a lot of people that commit crimes carrying guns that didn't carry guns before,” Mr. Taylor said.

        Critics such as state Sen. Eric Fingerhut, D-Cleveland, also say the bill would do little to fight crime. “The evidence is clear that having guns on the street and other public places is likely to lead to greater violence,” Mr. Fingerhut said.

        Crime statistics provided

        by proponents of concealed weapons are often misrepresented, Mr. Fingerhut said.

Statistics argued

               The crime rate has dropped in every state over the past decade, but states that allow concealed weapons have seen less of a decrease.

        The drop in crime is not because of states passing conceal-carry laws, but tougher sentencing, stricter rules on parole and plea-bargaining, and better crime-fighting technology, Mr. Fingerhut said. Forty-three states allow concealed weapons, including neighboring states Kentucky, Indiana, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, according to the National Rifle Association.

        It is illegal for most Ohioans to carry a concealed weapon.

        For people like Mr. Anderson, who feel their lives might be in danger, the state affords some protection.

        A judge can throw out a concealed weapons charge if the defendant can prove a reasonable need for the gun exists. Most often such cases involve people who handle large amounts of money in their work or have been threatened.

        Critics say that places too much of a burden on those who carry guns for safety. Anyone carrying a concealed weapon must first be arrested and pay the legal expenses of a trial, said Chuck Klein, a Cincinnati private detective.

        A person could spend thousands of dollars on court costs and be arrested again for carrying a weapon the next day, Mr. Klein said.

        “We want to get away from the burden of having to go to court,” he said.

        Mr. Klein is the lead plaintiff in a concealed weapons lawsuit against Hamilton County which, if won, could eliminate weapons regulations in the area.

        The suit charges Ohio gun law is a violation of the state's constitution by not allowing citizens to keep and bear arms for safety. It is expected to go to trial May 14, Mr. Klein said.

        He and other gun advocates argue concealed weapons lower crime by giving people an advantage over criminals.

        “If you don't know who's carrying a gun, you don't know who's safest to attack,” said Jeff Garvis, founder of Ohioans for Concealed Carry Inc.

Poll results questioned

               Despite those arguments, critics of the bill note most Ohioans don't want less restrictive gun laws. A recent Ohio Poll found 69 percent of Ohioans said they oppose making it easier to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The poll results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points and showed opposition has not changed much from poll results in 1995 and 1999.

        Mr. Brinkman said the poll results are flawed and misleading. The poll asked if respondents would favor a law making it “easier to obtain a permit” to carry a concealed weapon, which they said led respondents to believe the state already permits concealed weapons.

        Mr. Brinkman claims to have majority support in the House. The bill has 22 sponsors, nearly three times that of a concealed weapons bill introduced last year.

        Still, huge hurdles exist. State Rep. Gary Cates, R-West Chester, and the No. 2 House Republican, said the Vermont-style bill has little chance of passing the legislature in its current form.

        Mr. Cates said the bill might be too radical and it is likely legislators will reach a compromise that would more resemble laws in neighboring states like Kentucky. Residents of that state must have a clean criminal record, a written permit and proof of at least eight hours of firearms training before carrying a concealed weapon.

        In addition, Gov. Bob Taft has said he will oppose concealed weapons legislation that is not supported by Ohio law enforcement, said Mary Ann Sharkey, spokeswoman for the governor. Mr. Taft will wait to see if the bill is changed before considering a veto, she said.

        While the debate over weapons heats up, Mr. Anderson, an Ohio resident who asked not to be identified by where he lives or his place of work, continues to carry his gun without the state's blessing. For him, the three minutes it took police to respond to his attack was too long, and he hopes the legislature will make it legal for him to protect himself.

        “When you call the police, all you are getting is a man with a gun,” Mr. Anderson said.


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