One month after an 18-year-old gunned down 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, state Sens. Cecil Thomas (D-Cincinnati) and Tina Maharath (D-Columbus) introduced sweeping gun control legislation aimed at restricting who can get a gun in Ohio.
While the legislation, which overhauls many of Ohio’s existing gun laws, faces an uphill fight in the GOP-dominated legislature, Thomas said it’s important to continue fighting for what he called common-sense measures to end gun violence.
“We’re not trying to shut down the Second Amendment right to bear arms; we’re not trying to do any of that,” Thomas said. “What we’re just trying to do is make it as difficult as possible for those that may have bad intentions to get their hands on weapons.”
Raises firearm purchasing age from 18 to 21
Senate Bill 351, or the Defend Our Children Act, would increase the age at which Ohioans can buy a firearm from 18 to 21.
While current Ohio law bars 18-year-olds from purchasing handguns in Ohio, SB 351 would eliminate a provision that allows them to buy rifles, one step in quelling what Thomas called the proliferation of guns on the street.
“If that had been in place in Texas, possibly those children would still be alive,” Thomas said, citing the Uvalde shooter’s purchase of the AR-15-style rifle just days after turning 18.
Rob Sexton, director of legislative affairs for Buckeye Firearms Association, said delaying the age at which Ohioans can buy a firearm violates both the U.S. and Ohio Constitution.
Creating a “ready-made, victim class of young people,” he said, unfairly prevents those between the ages of 18 and 21 from defending themselves: “Three years in which you’re considered an adult in the eyes of both federal and state law, you can vote, you’ve graduated high school, you can serve your country – we’re going to make you wait in order to have the ability to protect yourself.”
Courts can revoke firearms from those who threaten ‘significant harm’
If SB 351 is enacted, Ohio would join 19 states and Washington, D.C., in adopting a red flag law that allows courts to confiscate firearms from those who pose a significant threat to harming themselves or others.
A number of people – including family or household members, significant others, and legal guardians, among others – can petition a judge to issue what’s called an extreme risk protection order against a gun owner whom they think presents a risk of violence.
“We need to be more concerned about keeping guns out of the hands of those that could potentially cause serious harm to the rest of the country,” Thomas said.
A red flag law could presumably prevent domestic abusers from buying or maintaining a firearm, according to Maria York, policy director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network.
At least 86% of the domestic violence fatalities that occurred in Ohio from July 2020 to June 2021 were perpetrated with a firearm, York said. Among those incidents, 121 people were either killed or injured with a firearm, including 15 children, which York said was the highest rate of child fatality since ODVN began reporting six years ago.
“Abusers use firearms to control, threaten, and murder their victims, and in a staggering amount of domestic violence-related homicides in Ohio, firearms are the primary weapon of choice,” York said.
Under current Ohio law, domestic abuse victims have a few avenues in the courts to try and remove an alleged offender’s firearm, but York said many perpetrators of domestic violence end up keeping their guns, given the confusing relationship between federal and state gun prohibitions — and a judge’s discretion in interpreting the law.
Of the 121 domestic violence-related deaths by firearm in Ohio from 2020-2021, 13 cases involved an offender with a past conviction that disqualified them from having a gun but had one anyway, she said.
While some civil judges can say a defendant can’t use or buy a gun, York said, others will only do so if a firearm was involved in a past conviction or allegation.
“If they (victims/survivors) don’t have an attorney, or they’re doing this pro se, this is very confusing to know they need to explain there has to be a concrete incident with a gun,” York said.
While an extreme risk protection order is designed to revoke guns from those who could commit serious harm, Sexton expressed concern that it could target law-abiding gun owners.
Judges might use their own discretion to determine whether someone’s firearm deserves to be revoked, Sexton said, or simply confiscate a gun for the sake of erring on the side of caution.
“In today’s society, where we see people getting into disputes over all sorts of things, it’s not a stretch to say two people who work in the same workplace and have a dispute, one of them could swear out a complaint like that in a malicious fashion,” he said.
Thomas, who served on the Cincinnati Police Department for 27 years before beginning his political career, said a red flag law could limit the frequency in which law enforcement officials are forced to interact with gun owners deemed dangerous.
“You don’t know who the good guy with a gun is. Every time you pull a vehicle over or make a street stop, you don’t know. But what you do know is that you’ve given everybody an opportunity to carry a gun without a background check,” Thomas said, referencing the recent signing of a law allowing Ohioans to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.
Establishes a 72-hour waiting period before Ohioans can buy a gun
The Defend Our Children Act also creates a three-day waiting period before an Ohioan can physically obtain a firearm, Thomas said, providing additional time for an applicant’s background to be vetted.
“The Constitution said the right to bear arms – I don’t think they put a time limit on anything,” he said.
Currently, Ohio is bound by federal law concerning background checks, which only requires federally licensed firearm dealers – not private sellers – from instituting background checks on prospective gun buyers, according to the Giffords Law Center.
In addition to a 72-hour waiting period, SB 351 would require federally licensed dealers, prior to transferring a firearm to an unlicensed person or dealer, to conduct an “incompetency records check” – expanding the number of Ohioans who are vetted prior to obtaining a gun, Thomas said.
Sexton said the three-day waiting period – what he called “the most dangerous part of the bill” – raises a number of red flags, particularly for those in dire need to defend themselves.
Domestic abusers, he said, often act on a threat of violence within 48 hours – well before the period in which a victim would be eligible to purchase a gun under Thomas’ law.
“But the law says, ‘Well geez, you can’t have that for 72 hours,’” Sexton said. “There is no justifiable reason for the law to prevent a person from defending themselves. In fact, I would say that provision is patently unconstitutional.”
York said while some victims and survivors consider purchasing firearms, “very few victims” actively follow through. Instead, York said many seek shelter at a domestic violence shelter, where advocates can help them discuss their options.
ODVN typically advises victims of domestic abuse to avoid purchasing a weapon – as it can easily end up in the abuser’s hands, amplify an abuser’s use of violence or result in a murder charge against a victim who uses it to kill their abuser.
“Usually after discussing their options with advocates, they do not want the risk of being forced into a situation where they kill their partner or end up being killed by their partner,” York said.
Although Thomas said he isn’t optimistic about the likelihood that his Republican colleagues – in what Sexton called a Second Amendment legislature – will support his bill, he plans to introduce gun violence prevention legislation as long as he’s in office.
And, he said he’s open to compromise.
“Listen, if I gotta do this in the next eight years in baby steps, I’ll do it,” he said.