Opponents question harsher sentences for illegal gun possession in Ohio
Members of the public shoot AR-15 rifles and other weapons at a shooting range during the “Rod of Iron Freedom Festival” on Oct. 12, 2019 in Greeley, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
An Ohio House measure aimed at increasing penalties for those who have a gun illegally is advancing in committee. But its opponents argue it won’t change the problems it sets out to fix.
The bill itself
Ohio state Rep. Kyle Koehler’s HB 383 raises the penalty for illegally possessing a weapon from a third-degree to a second-degree felony in certain cases. Repeat offenders could see that penalty rise to a first-degree felony.
In testimony introducing his bill, the Springfield Republican compared offenders to repeat drunk drivers.
“They already lost their right to drive — yet continue to get pulled over for driving under the influence — over and over and over,” Koehler argued. “Slapping them on the wrist simply does no good and continues to put the public at risk. In those instances, removing drunk drivers from the streets is the only solution.”
The measure tweaks the state’s “weapons under disability” statutes. Those provisions set out a series of situations in which citizens may not legally possess a firearm.
Disabilities include violent felony convictions or drug dependence, among others.
Koehler lays violent crime at the feet of a “small number of repeat offenders,” and he argued stiffer penalties will keep them behind bars.
“Those intent on breaking laws are never going to obey the laws we write on paper in Columbus,” Koehler argued. “The only way to stop these individuals from illegally obtaining firearms is to keep them in prison. Increasing restrictions for law-abiding gun owners is not the answer.”
What opponents think
In committee last week, Brian Skinner from the Ohio Public Defender’s office, attempted to poke holes in Koehler’s proposal.
He questioned the sponsors logic — seizing on Koehler’s point about a small number of offenders. If it’s a small group, Skinner argued, the measure punishes a much larger non-violent population. And if they’re offending repeatedly, he added, they’ve shown they’re not responsive to heightened penalties.
Skinner noted many ex-felons face significant challenges reentering society and often live in neighborhoods where crime is high.
“Not all ex-felons in the possession of a firearm intend to commit a violent crime,” he argued. “Instead, the experience of ex-felons as victims of violent crime often result in ex-felons possessing firearms to protect themselves and deter violence.”
Skinner added that about 800 people a year go to prison for the primary offense of having a weapon under disability. And that likely underestimates the issue, Skinner noted. Legislative estimators didn’t include cases where the charge was a secondary offense. Extending those prison terms will be costly — between $95,000 and $238,000 per inmate, Skinner estimated.
Where the rubber meets the road
Skinner and his fellow opponents, though, are facing an uphill battle. Even if a dangerous neighborhood might serve as a mitigating factor, it doesn’t change the fact that possessing a gun under disability is still illegal.
And in making his arguments, Skinner ran up against lawmakers’ perceptions about crime and the operation of the bill. In a telling exchange, Rep. Cindy Abrams, R-Hamilton, expressed concerns about people committing crimes with firearms they’re not legally supposed to have.
“What’s happening now is not working,” she said, exasperated. “And I’m not talking about law-abiding people. I’m talking about felons, that know they should not have a gun, but they carry one anyway, and now they commit another crime.”
Skinner explained those additional crimes should, of course, be punished, but that’s already in existing law — the bill itself doesn’t address those.
Rep. Andrea White, R-Kettering, insisted as Rep. Koehler did, that the measure targets repeat offenders for heightened penalties. In reality one very important class of people — likely those about whom the sponsor is most concerned — face stiffer punishment after their first offense.
Anyone whose weapons disability stems from a past “felony of violence” conviction, would see their penalty jump from a third-degree to a second-degree felony. That change means an offender’s potential prison term jumps from between 9 and 36 months to 2 to 8 years.
Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.
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