Cincinnati takes a swing at gun reform with a lawsuit and new ordinances

Cincinnati takes a swing at gun reform with a lawsuit and new ordinances
Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 3:21 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 2, 2023 at 3:22 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (ENQUIRER) - In an effort to curb gun violence, Cincinnati has two proposed ordinances for City Council to consider and has filed a lawsuit against the state.

The first ordinance addresses the safe storage of firearms to keep them away from children. The second ordinance would bar those convicted of domestic violence or subject to a protection order from processing firearms.

The ordinances are extensions or additions to existing laws. They give law enforcement and prosecutors a few more options when it comes to addressing gun violence in situations that might not rise to the level of a felony. As city ordinances, both of the new charges would be misdemeanors punishable by up to one year in prison.

However, cities in Ohio have largely been unsuccessful in passing gun legislation due to a 2006 law that has survived a challenge in the Ohio Supreme Court. Cincinnati’s lawyers want to change that.

Often called the “preemption law,” it bars political subdivisions (like cities and counties) from regulating firearms, their components, ammunition, and knives. Ohio’s gun lobby has successfully sued Cincinnati and other cities in the past to block gun restrictions. In 2018, Cincinnati’s ban on bump stocks was stopped in this way.

“Keeping residents safe is the top priority of our City government,” Mayor Aftab Pureval said. “Gun safety measures save lives, and we will continue to do everything in our power to put an end to gun violence in Cincinnati.”

Last week, the city filed a lawsuit seeking that the “preemption law” be declared unconstitutional.

Safe storage

The safe storage law falls under the existing law of child endangering. While a parent who let a child access a gun could now be charged under this law, the new ordinance would spell out the offense, according to the city solicitor’s office.

It states that firearms should not be stored where “a child is able to gain access to the firearm,” and that failing to do so creates a substantial risk to the health and safety of a child.

The proposed ordinance cites a 2022 case in which a 6-year-old shot and killed his 3-year-old brother and a 2020 case in which an 8-year-old was shot and killed when he and another child were handling a gun. In both cases, the children found loaded guns in their homes, the ordinance states. In both cases, adults were charged with felonies more severe than the proposed legislation.

The proposed ordinance is written to allow charges to be filed even if no one is hurt in an incident, the solicitor’s office said.

“This is not about going and knocking on somebody’s door to take a firearm away from them,” Cincinnati Police Chief Teresa Theetge said.

She said officers will be enforcing the laws when situations present themselves. She said gun locks are available at all Cincinnati police stations and her department continues to work to distribute those for free.

Columbus passed similar legislation in December. However, its law falls under negligent homicide and negligent assault.

Attorney General Dave Yost sought to block the Columbus law, but a Fairfield County judge allowed the restriction to stand in a ruling last month. Yost argued the law will criminalize people for failing to find adequate hiding places for firearms so not even their teenage children could find them, and that they destroy a person’s ability to use a firearm for self-protection. Yost’s office said he plans to appeal the judge’s decision.

Domestic violence

The new domestic violence ordinance would mirror an existing federal law, but allow for local prosecution under local law in cases the federal government may not prosecute, according to the solicitor’s office.

The proposed ordinance would be an addition to the “having weapons under disability” law. This is the same type of law that bars a convicted felon from owning or possessing a gun.

The new law would bar anyone who has been convicted of a misdemeanor offense of domestic violence from possessing a weapon as well as bar anyone who is subject to a temporary protection or restraining order involving an intimate partner or child of an intimate partner. The order must find that the person represents a “credible threat.”

Chief Theetge spoke in support the proposed ordinances Thursday.

“Through this new legislation, we are working together to prevent acts of gun violence and unintentional shootings that cause our communities unimaginable grief and pain,” Theetge said.

Theetge said in 2022, 20 people were killed in connection with domestic violence. That accounts for about a quarter of all homicides in the city.

City Solicitor Emily Woerner said those previously convicted of domestic violence are already barred from having firearms under federal law. She said the new ordinance allows for local enforcement.

The lawsuit

The 43-page lawsuit filed Friday in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court challenges a 2006 law passed by the Ohio legislature and its 2018 expansion.

It forbids Ohio municipalities from imposing any restriction on a person’s ability to own, possess, purchase, sell, transfer, transport, store or keep any firearm, part of a firearm, its components and its ammunition.

In the past, this has prevented cities from passing their own limits on the size of magazines or their own bans on assault weapons.

The lawsuit argues the law is “an unconstitutional and unlawful effort by the General Assembly to silence local elected officials and the municipalities they represent.”

The suit states the “home rule” power of Ohio cities, a provision of the Ohio Constitution allowing cities to pass laws, should protect cities from the law.

Cincinnati’s lawyers said one of the reasons the preemption law was upheld by the court was that the state had laws in place regulating concealed carry. The lawsuit states now that guns can be carried without a permit, that argument is obsolete.

“With one hand the State dismantles existing gun laws; with the other, it threatens exorbitant liability for Ohio cities attempting to fill the void,” the suit states. “The State’s abandonment of common-sense gun regulation has bloody consequences.”

The lawsuit states local ordinances could help prevent mass shootings, accidental shootings of children and intimate partner gun violence.

“(The preemption law) purports to ‘provide uniform laws throughout the state,’ but what the statute truly accomplishes is a uniform absence of gun regulation,” the suit states.

The city is asking for both preliminary and permanent injunction against the law.

The gun lobby

The Buckeye Firearms Association released a statement Thursday in response to the announcement.

“The city of Cincinnati has decided to again waste its citizens’ tax dollars and re-litigate settled law,” the statement said.

Executive Director Dean Rieck said Cincinnati paid the Buckeye Firearms Association over $230,000 in legal fees after the organization sued over Cincinnati’s proposed bump stock ban. He said the laws will not be followed by criminals and will entrap otherwise law-abiding citizens.

“We will not allow rogue cities to eviscerate the progress we’ve made over the last two decades just so they can grandstand and pretend that they’re fighting crime, when all they’re doing is wasting taxpayer dollars on political theater,” Rieck said.

What’s next

The two ordinances are expected to be presented at the Public Safety and Governance Committee on Tuesday. The full council could vote on the ordinances as soon as Feb. 15.

Mayor Pureval, Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Kearney and councilmembers Scotty Johnson, Meeka Owens and Liz Keating co-sponsored the legislation.

City Manager Sheryl Long also supports the new ordinances.

“As someone who has lost a close family member to gun violence, I’m proud to support this legislation,” Long said. “These laws will save lives. Gun violence affects all Cincinnatians, and we can and should exercise our local authority to respond to this crisis.”

Judge Jennifer Branch has been assigned Cincinnati’s lawsuit against the state. Hearings in the case have not yet been scheduled.

This story was written by our media partners at The Cincinnati Enquirer.