Columbus fighting Ohio firearm regulation preemptions in court again
After an appeals court rejected an earlier decision in the city’s favor, Columbus is arguing state law violates home rule
Potential buyers try out guns which are displayed on an exhibitor’s table during the Nation’s Gun Show. (Photo by Alex Wong, Getty Images)
Columbus is continuing its case against the state on gun safety, arguing that a state law barring local firearm ordinances is unconstitutional. After a long delay, a county common pleas judge agreed with the city, and filed an order to put the law on hold.
But an appeals court went the other way. The panel said the case’s timeline undercuts the idea that the city faces imminent and irreparable harm. The injunction the trial court imposed typically maintains the status quo while a case plays out. Instead, the appeals court said the lower court’s order, “years after that statute became controlling law…contravened the status quo.”
The appeals court decision also proclaimed the “staleness” of the city’s arguments. After Columbus filed its case, lawmakers continued passing legislation — including amendments to the law Columbus was fighting. Even granting that the city made its case in 2019, the appeals court said, the trial court didn’t explain how those legislative changes impacted its analysis.
Columbus tries again
The appeals court decision threw out the lower court’s preliminary injunction and sent the matter back to the trial court. In its latest filing, Columbus asked the trial court judge for a decision on the merits. The filing acknowledges the appeals court’s objection to the case’s delay. But it insists the appeals court “never addressed this Court’s conclusion that R.C. 9.68 in its original and amended forms violate the Ohio Constitution.”
Their motion makes two key arguments in favor of the city’s position. First, the city contends Ohio’s firearm preemptions were previously upheld because the state had a comprehensive regulatory scheme. Since then, lawmakers have systematically dismantled state gun laws.
Second, Columbus argues more recent state supreme court rulings abandon that comprehensive analysis and instead judge statutes individually. The law is unconstitutional, the city says, because it simply prohibits cities from exerting power the constitution reserves for it.
A gun regime dismantled
In its previous court filings, the state has criticized Columbus for attempting to overturn a law upheld by Ohio’s supreme court and in place for years. The city, however, looks to intervening legislation to cast doubt on that earlier supreme court decision.
In 2010, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s preemption. In a case known as Cleveland v. State of Ohio, the court concluded the preemption was part of a broader statewide plan for regulating firearms.
“However, something significant happened after the Cleveland decision,” Columbus argues.
The city goes on to enumerate the different gun laws — on which the majority in the Cleveland case based its decision — that have since been repealed or modified. Transporting a gun in a vehicle, carrying a concealed weapon in a bar, or bringing one into a state park — all are now legal, Columbus argues. The city adds that weapons under disability provisions have been weakened to allow people with misdemeanor drug offenses to have firearms.
The biggest change, however, has been to the state’s concealed carry policy.
“At the time, only persons with a valid concealed-carry permit could bring firearms into school zones, liquor establishments, and vehicles or vessels,” the city notes. “Now, any individual who can legally possess a firearm may carry it concealed and bring it anywhere a person with a concealed carry permit is legally permitted to bring a firearm.”
The city contends those changes represent a kind of retreat when it comes to firearm regulation. And in the absence of a regulatory scheme, the state’s efforts don’t qualify as a “general law” allowed under Ohio’s home rule provisions.
Columbus attorneys look to another provision in the general law test and argue the state’s preemption fails there as well.
To qualify, Columbus notes, a law must “set forth police, sanitary or similar regulations, rather than purport only to grant or limit legislative power of a municipal corporation to set forth police, sanitary, or similar regulations.”
The city draws a comparison to recent decision on red light cameras, Dayton v. State of Ohio. In that case, the court struck down a law including a series of provisions limiting cities’ use of red light or speed cameras. Because those restrictions told the city how to exercise its authority without serving “an overriding state interest” the court found them unconstitutional.
The city argues the same is true for the firearm preemption.
“That provision simply prohibits a municipality from enacting firearm regulations. And it does so without an overriding objective,” Columbus argues. “The State places its entire defense on the need for uniformity, so that individuals do not run afoul of firearm laws in a municipality they travel through.”
But Columbus argues those fears are illusory. Federal law grants safe harbor to someone transporting a firearm between places they can legally carry, regardless of the restrictions between.
Undercutting the state’s appeals to uniformity further, the city cites Republican former Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor’s justification for upholding local regulations before lawmakers approved firearm preemptions. O’Connor reasoned gun owners don’t need to “research a patchwork of regulations to avoid violating the law.” They need to know the law where they live and the law where they want to use their weapon.
Columbus also contends recent additions to state law violate home rule by dictating municipal zoning decisions. Similarly, the city argues provisions declaring local restrictions “null and void” violates the separation of powers doctrine, by telling courts how to interpret legislation.
What comes next
The city has a handful of firearm ordinances that are already on the books, but unenforced because of state law. Those provisions ban straw sales, prohibit large capacity magazines, and require safe storage in the home. In its motion, Columbus argues there’s little prosecutors can do when a minor accidentally shoots themselves or others. They often have to rely on the child endangerment statute, the city says. But that law only applies if the gun’s owner is acting as the victim’s parent or guardian.
Columbus has filed what’s known as a motion for summary judgement. The motion essentially says all the facts are on the table and the parties don’t need to wrestle through them at trial. It’s also an argument that the only way to interpret those facts would be to find in the city’s favor.
Given the trial judge’s previous decision, it’s possible that could work. But it’s a very high bar to clear, and the attorney general’s office has adamantly defended the state’s preemption statue. The state has until Sept. 27 to file its response.
Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.
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