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Gov. DeWine Introduces 'STRONG Ohio' Bill To Reduce Gun Violence

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, left, speaks alongside Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, right, during a vigil at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton.
John Minchillo

Two months after the mass shooting in Dayton spurred Gov. Mike DeWine to take action against gun violence, the governor has released details about the official bill he's presenting to lawmakers. The legislation won't include two significant gun control measures DeWine previously supported, however.

DeWine in August said he wanted two major elements in his gun violence bill: a version of a “red flag” gun seizure law, and enhanced background checks for private gun purchases. Neither element appears in the version DeWine unveiled Monday.

The governor says his "STRONG Ohio" plan, which will be sponsored by state Sen. Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls) will create improved measures to protect the public, increase private sale background checks and will decrease gun violence overall.

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said the mission was to come up with something that would be constitutional while respecting Second Amendment rights, and still manage to pass the Republican-dominated legislature. Husted said this package was developed with hundreds of hours of consultations with mental health experts, hospitals, law enforcement and gun rights groups.

“Everything we are doing places no new restrictions or limitations on a law-abiding citizen to own a gun,” Husted said at a Monday press conference. “These proposals are focused on keeping guns out of the hands of people who, based on current law, are prevented from owning a gun.”

Husted said the administration felt a “red flag” law, which former Gov. John Kasich unsuccessfully pushed last year, would be “inadequate and unworkable.” He said a valid due process period would take at least 72 hours, which poses a potential danger to that person and to law enforcement. And Husted said just removing the gun doesn’t mean you’ve kept that person or others safe.

The proposal in this bill is being called an “enhanced safety protection order.” It’s built on the existing “pink slip” law, which allows for people assessed by mental health experts in a psychiatric facility.

Husted said this would add substance abuse as a reason for allows a person to be pink slipped, along with mental illness. It would also require anyone who is deemed to be a danger to themselves or others to surrender their weapons.

The bill also creates a new system for background checks for private gun sales and transfers. The “seller protection certificate” would not create a requirement for a background check for private gun sales, as DeWine previously discussed.

However, Husted said the certificate would create “an easy way for buyers to prove they are legally allowed to own a gun and to give private sellers peace of mind and a responsible way to sell a gun to someone who they may not know.”

Husted said potential buyers can request background checks from sheriffs’ offices, which can issue a “seller protection certificate” good for 90 days. That certificate or a valid concealed carry weapons permit can be presented to private sellers as proof they’ve passed a background check.

Husted said private sellers won’t have to require sellers to have that certificate, but will have an incentive to use the system – there’s a penalty of up to three years in prison for selling a gun to a criminal.

“Under this plan, the excuse ‘I didn’t know he was a bad guy’ will no longer work in the state of Ohio,” Husted said. “We are making it easy for private sellers to act responsibly and have peace of mind. We create a solution, an incentive, and a consequence.”

Husted said this system should be implemented by mid-January.

"A Good First Step"

For Whitney Austin, this legislation is personal: She survived a mass shooting near Cincinnati last year.

"It takes my breath away nearly every time I think about this. I was shot 12 times and not once did a bullet hit a major organ or an artery. It is inconceivable," Austin said. "Yet here I stand, physically and mentally strong enough to be here to talk to you."

At Monday's press conference, Austin choked back tears as she explained why she supports the bill.

"So what do you do when you cannot make sense of the gift that you have been given?" she said. "For me, there has only been one answer. That is to fight to insure that I save as many others from senseless gun violence as possible."

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, who dealt with the aftermath of the mass shooting there in August, called DeWine's plan "a good first step."

She liked one part of it that uses the current state law on pink listing. It would steer a person thought to be a danger to themselves or others into treatment for 72 hours, where they would be separated from their guns. Whaley says, in this way, the bill is better than a red flag law where the guns are removed instead.

But she says one key element is absent from the new gun bill. 

“Nine out of 10 Ohioans call for a background check," Whaley said. "There’s not a background check in this bill. And so I think that is something that the legislature is going to have to decide and the voters are going to have to come to them with it and they are going to have to listen to the public. That’s what we are drawn to do, what we are supposed to do. And when you have that many Ohioans agreeing on something, something’s got to give in that legislature."

Dennis Willard, a spokesman for Ohioans for Gun Safety,  agreed on that point. He represents a group that’s trying to put a gun reform issue on the ballot next year. And Willard said the absence of a universal background check is a deal breaker.

"If the legislature closed the background check loophole, we would applaud them and stop our campaign. But we are not confident that will happen so we are going full steam ahead," Willard said.

Willard said he thinks the group will have the nearly 300,000 valid signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot.

Not A Sure Thing

The bill will start in the GOP-dominated Senate, where it’s expected to have an easier path to passage than in the House.

Republican House Speaker Larry Householder has expressed reservations about the gun seizure idea in particular, saying he’s concerned about due process rights of gun owners but also about giving a “heads up” to those who might be dangerous.

That also concerned Dean Rieck of the Buckeye Firearms Association. He said says he’s pleased to see the bill doesn’t have a red flag law but he's still wants more details.

“I consider that a positive step but what does it actually do? That’s what we are going to have to look at. Of course, we have some concerns about background check," Rieck said. "There are a lot of other points in this 17-point plan so what about some of these other things. We are going to have to look at it, see what does or doesn’t impact second amendment rights."

When DeWine and Whaley spoke to the Dayton community in the days that followed the August shooting, they were greeted by chants of "do something." The question now is what lawmakers do with this proposal and whether it is enough to keep the issue from going to the ballot next November.