Ohio gun owners’ rights during traffic stops under debate

Gun rights advocate at rally
COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 14: Gun owners and second amendment advocates gather at the Ohio State House to protest gun control legislation on September 14, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. The group stood against red flag laws proposed by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and national politicians in the wake of a wave of mass shootings throughout the U.S. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

An issue pitting gun owners’ rights against the safety of law enforcement is being debated at the Statehouse. 

A Republican-backed bill in the Ohio House of Representatives seeks to modify the rules for what a concealed carry permit holder must do when pulled over by police.

Current law stipulates they must “promptly inform any law enforcement officer” of the fact they are carrying a concealed handgun. 

Gun rights advocates take issue with the use of the word “promptly” — they say this definition is vague, too dependent on interpretation and leaves Ohioans unfairly susceptible to prosecutorial abuse. 

House Bill 425 reflects another attempt by Republicans to solve these perceived issues. Though more aggressive gun supporters want a complete repeal of the “duty to notify” law, this bill does not go that far. It instead removes the “promptly” definition and mandates that a driver must display their concealed carry license to an officer alongside other requested paperwork, such as a driver’s license and insurance verification. (Or, the driver can verbally inform an officer of their gun, as is current practice.)

The bill also changes the penalty of failing to notify from being a first-degree misdemeanor to being an unclassified misdemeanor with a maximum possible fine of $25. 

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster, proposed a similar piece of legislation in the previous general assembly.

State Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster

Several law enforcement groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio and the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association, came out against that bill for allegedly putting officer safety at risk. The 2017 bill passed the House, with legislators voting primarily along party lines (Democrats largely rejected it). The Senate did not take up the bill. 

Wiggam is giving the issue another shot. At a House Federalism Committee hearing Wednesday, supporters pointed out that 41 states do not have a duty to notify law and that Ohio is among the outliers with such a rule.

Doug Deeken of the Ohioans For Concealed Carry group called it “bad law” and said gun owners are treated like “third-class citizens.” 

“There are many documented cases of this vague definition of ‘promptly’ being used to harass (Concealed Handgun License) holders,” Deeken claimed.

Several who testified offered reasons as to why a lawful gun owner might not be prompt in notifying law enforcement. Gary Witt of Ohioans For Concealed Carry described a theoretical scene where a man gets pulled over with his kids screaming and dogs barking from inside the car. He might be too distracted to comply, Witt said.

In another example, a driver could be too stressed by the potential of a speeding ticket to immediately think about complying with the need to tell an officer of their concealed handgun. 

This prompted a follow-up from Rep. Joe Miller, D-Amherst, who suggested that drivers stressed out by a routine traffic stop might not be the type of person who should be carrying a lethal weapon to begin with.

Gun advocate calls HB 425 ‘cover’ for politicians, insults DeWine

The “duty to notify” topic has become a wedge issue between varying factions of Ohio’s pro-gun lobby. 

The most aggressive of these groups, Ohio Gun Owners, stands alone in opposition to HB 425 as it is currently written. Chris Dorr, the group’s director, believes the notifying requirement should be stripped entirely and not simply modified.

After testifying on Wednesday, Dorr spoke at length on the subject during a Facebook Live video filmed outside of Gov. Mike DeWine’s office. Dorr is a frequent critic of the governor’s policy proposals on guns, particularly his STRONG Ohio bill.

“I’m standing outside that loser’s office right now here at the Statehouse,” Dorr said. At one point, struggling with internet connection issues, Dorr pointed his camera at the office door and mused that DeWine was using signal jammers to mess with his video. 

Dorr called HB 425 a “watered-down bill” that Federalism Committee members are using as an easy legislative win to appease gun owners. 

“They want cover,” he said. “They don’t want to give us everything that we want … they want to give us this stuff in order to hide from gun owners.

“We’re not willing to just sit here and roll over at the first sign of any forward progress and give these politicians an out,” he added.