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A bill loosening gun laws in Ohio by allowing firearms in some government buildings may have a significant loophole that hurts domestic violence survivors, a WEWS/OCJ analysis discovered.
Year after year, Ohio lawmakers have introduced legislation to expand gun rights. State Rep. Adam Mathews (R-Lebanon) is the latest.
“Our constituents are enthused on us standing for our constitutional rights,” Mathews said.
He and state Rep. Justin Pizzulli (R-Scioto County) introduced House Bill 272, which is meant to allow local governments to choose if people can carry guns inside municipal buildings that hold court.
This all stems from the Lebanon City Council, which passed an ordinance allowing residents to carry guns into the city building, Mathews explained. Some residents filed a lawsuit against this, but as of spring 2023, a judge sided in favor of the city.
“In many of our smaller communities, good stewardship of taxpayer dollars often means a single multi-purpose city or village hall,” Mathews said in testimony for the bill. “This city hall may house the tax department, electric department, council chambers, and a room that is sometimes a courtroom.”
Once a city votes to approve that, anyone with a concealed carry permit could bring a firearm into that building, as long as court isn’t in session. It was originally designed to allow multi-purpose centers that have court a few times a week to allow guns — as long as it isn’t designated as solely a courthouse.
“It’s only for those where our citizens want this and their representatives locally would want to have this type of recognition of concealed carry,” Mathews added.
However, WEWS/OCJ identified a possible loophole in the bill that could allow individuals to carry firearms into actual courthouses — not just buildings that hold court.
Not only would this allow some people, most likely in rural areas that have smaller government, to bring guns to city council sessions — but it could have a greater impact on court cases, according to Lou Tobin with the Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
“Yes, you can carry concealed weapons into this building,” he said about the legislation.
Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau asked Tobin and numerous nonpartisan legal experts if it was possible to bring guns into a courthouse as long as it has other purposes, like if city executives have offices there or if marriages are performed in the building. They all agreed that it would be feasible.
People would still be prohibited from having a gun during trials, but Tobin, who hasn’t taken a stance on the legislation, still has concerns.
“You could have somebody who shows up a couple of hours before court is in session or even just showing up when other stuff is going on – like mediation,” he said.
Allowing guns into courthouses could have a devastating impact on abuse survivors, Maria York with the Ohio Domestic Violence Network said.
Not speaking directly about the legislation since it is new, she offered her perspective on how dangerous guns are for victims — and why courthouses are supposed to be a safe space.
“You’re having to confront them in a way, see them face to face and it might be the first time since the abusive incident that they’re seeing them,” she said.
If both the abuser and the victim get to the court before it is officially open for the day, this could cause major problems, she said.
Typically, a victim and a perpetrator should be separated before hearings begin, but that doesn’t always happen. They could also be leaving at the same time, and the court session may be ending at that point, the advocate said.
All of this could lead to stress and intimidation at the least, she said. Firearms around the court could cut the victims’ safety net of being protected from a gun before and after a hearing, she added.
“It’s very daunting and it’s scary and it’s intimidating,” York said. “There have been offenders actually shooting and killing their victim at courtrooms or outside of the courthouse.”
Even if someone is going to court on a domestic violence offense, the accused could still have access to their weapon.
“It’s a horrific reality, that domestic violence abusers are legally possessing their guns and using it later on to commit homicides,” she added. “It’s a reality and it’s a risk that this might happen.”
Mathews disagreed with Tobin’s concerns about courthouse threats.
“This makes no change to any courthouses and they would remain under the auspices of those judges to control their own building, including keeping concealed carry out of their buildings,” the representative said.
It’s unclear how a judge would have control over the building if there are multiple purposes for the building.
Tobin said he would work with Mathews to close this loophole as the bill is being heard.
This article was originally published on News5Cleveland.com and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.
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