Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Views clash in court on gun law

Concealed carry appeal heard

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Several justices of the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday raised questions about a precedent-setting case challenging Ohio's longstanding ban on concealed weapons.

Four Hamilton County gun owners argue that a state law that restricts the carrying of concealed weapons violates their state-constitutional rights to bear arms to defend themselves.

The newest justice, former lieutenant governor Maureen O'Connor, wondered about that.

"The police, the state, the legislature have the right to regulate the right to bear arms," she said during oral arguments Tuesday. "It's not an unfettered right."

Those and other skeptical comments from justices did little to deter William Gustavson, the gun owners' attorney. He said the only way a person can prove he can legally conceal a weapon is to get hauled off to jail and fight it out in court.

"When you are exercising your constitutional right, you shouldn't be arrested for it," Gustavson said.

So far, two lower state courts have agreed with Gustavson and declared the ban on concealed weapons unconstitutional in Hamilton County. The justices decided to keep the law in place temporarily, until they make a decision affecting all of Ohio's 88 counties.

Attorneys for the state and the city of Cincinnati urged the justices to make that temporary decision a permanent one. Douglas R. Cole, the state solicitor, said the high court has for decades supported the law banning concealed weapons as a reasonable restriction.

"Ohio citizens have the right to carry firearms," Cole said, "so long as they do it openly and obviously."

Gustavson disagreed, saying even those people who carry firearms on their hips will be stopped, questioned and arrested by police.

"If a citizen carries a firearm concealed, (he) will be arrested," he said. "If they carry weapons openly they will be arrested."

Several justices attacked that claim. Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton said she'd never seen a criminal charge filed against someone for openly wearing a firearm in her seven years as a trial court judge.

"Is there something different about Hamilton (County) than Columbus?" she asked.

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer said he thinks fear of arrest is not the only reason why people no longer openly wear firearms.

"It would seem that a second reason that's not done is that it's socially unacceptable," Pfeifer said. "If you walked down the street with pearl-handled six-shooters the police would be getting calls that there's some nut walking around."

Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer wondered if the central issue in this case was simply how police enforce the law.

Cole said the decision on whether Ohioans should carry concealed weapons belongs to lawmakers in the General Assembly.

"The legislature could, in its wisdom, pass a (conceal and carry) statute," he said. "It hasn't."

The Ohio House passed a bill last month that would let law-abiding residents carry concealed weapons with a permit. Several similar bills have failed to pass the General Assembly in recent years, because Gov. Bob Taft has threatened to veto them.

A Supreme Court decision declaring Ohio's law unconstitutional would let virtually everyone in the state carry concealed weapons without the police training, criminal background checks or permits the bill would require.

The court's decision will be released within three to six months.


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