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Ohio Second Amendment ‘sanctuary’ measure cleared for the House floor

An Ohio House committee has signed off on the Second Amendment Preservation Act, clearing the way for its consideration on the floor.

By Nick Evans, Ohio Capital Journal - November 20, 2023
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Guns on display in a gun store in Miami, Florida in 2016
FILE - This June 29, 2016, file photo shows guns on display at a gun store in Miami. Florida lawmakers can fine local government officials who attempt to restrict gun and ammunition sales under a state law upheld by the state Supreme Court on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)

The measure removes references in state firearms law to federal statutes and places strict limits on cooperation with federal officials. The stated purpose being to keep local agencies from enforcing federal laws or regulations. But the ambitions of the bill’s supporters stretch much further than that, and opponents contend it could be a disaster for local law enforcement.

House Speaker Jason Stephens has a handful of sessions planned before the end of the year, and he wants to bring it to the floor by then.

Background

The day before the bill got its first hearing, a federal judge struck down the Missouri law that served as its model. Missouri has appealed the ruling, and last month the circuit court declined to stay the lower court decision while the case plays out.

In the Ohio bill’s initial version, drafters enumerated a set of Second Amendment freedoms far broader than those that are currently recognized. The bill then stated any state officer or agency found enforcing laws contrary to those freedoms would be subject to a $50,000 civil penalty per offense.

And it went even further, threatening penalties for state and local agencies that hired former federal officials.

The opposition has been loud and wide-ranging. In addition to gun control advocates, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors argue the bill would foreclose valuable tools. Task forces that combine federal and local resources are vital for drug and trafficking enforcement. The ballistics database departments use to track weapons used in multiple crimes is a federal resource. Both would be off limits. The hiring prohibition, while aimed at federal law enforcement, was drafted so broadly that hiring any former federal employee would be risky.

Committee passage

Last month, supporters rolled out a series of tweaks, aiming to soften the bill’s most strident provisions. But those changes did little to mollify opponents.

“The bill still lacks clear statutory guidance to us and to law enforcement about what we can and cannot do,” Lou Tobin from the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association explained.

He rattled off a series of instances in which the bill is vague, impractical or at cross purposes with itself. The latest version allows agencies to use the federal ballistics database, for instance, but it retains prohibitions on supporting federal law enforcement. There’s just one problem.

“By participating in (the program) we are entering information into a database that is accessed and used by federal law enforcement officials in their own efforts to enforce federal law,” Tobin said.

He explained provisions allowing agencies to hand off cases to federal prosecutors don’t make sense because the bill requires them to pursue state prosecutions.

“They’re going to be referred to the United States Attorney so the United States attorney can enforce federal law, which often provides harsher penalties than Ohio law,” Tobin said.

He added those allowances are further complicated by demands that firearm charges be “merely ancillary” charges.

“At what point we wonder does a firearms offense become the main offense and a crime against the person become the ancillary offense?” Tobin asked. “If there’s one violent crime and two firearms offenses? Or if there’s one violent crime and five firearms offenses?”

“We’re left to guess what we what we can and cannot do,” he said.

Pro-cop?

The bill’s chief proponent is the absolutist gun rights organization, Ohio Gun Owners. Its leader, Chris Dorr, described the AR-15 as “the American rifle that we all own as a final check and balance on tyrannical government.” He criticized President Biden for urging Congress to pass an assault weapons ban, and portrayed Ohio’s measure as a response to federal authorities attempting to limit access to the weapons.

Congress has shown no interest in a new assault weapons ban, and the inciting incident for Ohio’s proposal was actually a regulation restricting pistol braces.

Dorr repeatedly insisted that the proposal is “pro-cop,” and argued rank and file officers are just as skeptical as he is about having to enforce federal laws. He said they’re afraid of testifying because they might risk promotion.

And Dorr defended the bill’s changes, arguing they maintain the intent while giving local agencies the flexibility they need to operate.

“Nothing about this bill puts handcuffs on Ohio law enforcement from reaching out and availing themselves to those federal resources in the investigation of their own crimes,” Dorr explained. “And nothing about this bill prevents federal law enforcement officers from coming into Ohio and enforcing federal laws themselves.”

Speaking on behalf of the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police, former Dublin police chief Heinz von Eckartsberg echoed several of Tobins critiques. He also argued the bill doesn’t account for how investigations actually work. Zeroing in on changes to allow police participation in task forces, he argued the bill’s firearm prohibitions would hamper a broad array of investigations.

“A lot of times, (in) these investigations, that is the only lead we have—the weapon,” von Eckartsberg said. “Clearly, because of that it becomes the focus of the investigation.”

“The prohibition in this bill still creates an unnecessary hindrance to law enforcement in our efforts to hold these criminals to account,” he added.

Outlook

Despite the opposition, lawmakers on the House Government Oversight committee voted to advance the proposal along party lines. After the House session later that day, Speaker Jason Stephens said he expected the chamber to approve the bill rapidly.

“I anticipate we get it passed by the end of the year,” he said, “certainly by the end of the General Assembly.”

And Stephens brushed off the federal case against Missouri’s legislation.

“If I’m not mistaken, I believe that was a different circuit,” he said.

“That’s part of the conversation that we’re having on this issue as far as federalism versus state power,” Stephens added. “I think that’s an interesting conversation, but I think it’s an important one for a lot of our citizens.”


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