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Legislation to decriminalize gun-free zones clears House, despite opposition

Special to the Legal News

Published: July 17, 2017

A bill that detractors consider, at best, a carve out of the state's existing concealed handgun carry law and, at worst, an assault on property rights cleared the Ohio House of Representatives recently.

House Bill 233, sponsored by Republican Rep. John Becker of Union Township, is intended to decriminalize gun-free zones for holders of a concealed handgun license.

It's Becker's belief and that of the bill's 51 cosponsors that licenseholders are vetted thoroughly enough, having passed background checks successfully and having been fingerprinted, photographed and trained, that they shouldn't be criminally penalized for entering a gun-free zone unknowingly or otherwise.

"For many, carrying their concealed firearm is second nature," the lawmaker said upon the bill's introduction. "As concealed handgun licenseholders are law abiding citizens and carry firearms for personal and community safety, codifying this standard procedure, practiced by officials in many government buildings, ensures that they will not be prosecuted unless they refuse to leave the premises."

HB 233 proposes that if a licenseholder with a concealed firearm is discovered in a designated gun-free zone, he or she must leave upon request.

Failure to do so would subject the violator to the charge of disorderly conduct with a potential penalty of 30 days in jail and a $250 fine.

Proponents of the measure believe the legislation maintains the rights of property owners, while codifying the common practice of allowing the offender the opportunity to leave.

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce, along with the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, challenged the bill on the bases of protecting the rights of private property owners and maintaining safe workplaces.

"We strongly believe that HB 233 makes it significantly more difficult for our members to provide a safe work environment for their employees and customers and infringes on the private property rights of business owners," the chamber's Labor and Legal Affairs Director Don Boyd offered in testimony. "Under current law, an owner of private property, including a business, can post a sign prohibiting visitors, employees, and customers from carrying firearms onto their property.

"If an individual knowingly violates that prohibition, he or she can be charged and found guilty of criminal trespass."

The retail merchants organization argued the bill would leave business owners with new uncertainties regarding which policies they can enforce while also placing a new burden of confrontation if they choose to ask an individual possessing a firearm to vacate the property.

"Current law has provided Ohio with a balance between the rights of concealed carry holders and the rights of business owners," the council's Public Affairs Manager Alex Boehnke said.

John Hohenwarter, state liaison to National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action, countered that HB 233 is, indeed, the compromise between property rights interests and individuals who exercise their right to self defense.

The bill, he said, finally recognizes the difference between a criminal who commits a violent crime and a concealed license holder who walks into a church or library which happens to be a government building.

"It goes without saying that some of Ohio's finest citizenry are concealed handgun license holders," Hohenwarter said. "These individuals are required to pass a background check, be photographed, fingerprinted and trained in gun safety and marksmanship proficiency.

"These law-abiding citizens should not be subject to the current criminal penalties because they choose to exercise their Second Amendment rights."

On behalf of the association representing Ohio police chiefs, John Gilchrist, legislative counsel, told lawmakers that HB 233 effectively eliminates all prohibited places that bar concealed handgun licenseholders from carrying.

"Licensees will knowingly and purposely carry into prohibited places knowing there will be no penalty if they leave when asked," Gilchrist said. "In addition, licensees understand that it is virtually impossible to prove that they knowingly carried into a prohibited place - a person can keep carrying into a prohibited places until he get caught and when he gets caught, he gets a pass.

"There is no mechanism whereby anyone, including law enforcement, will know of a second violation which apparently has to be committed at the same premises within 30 days before there could be a violation of the criminal trespass provision."

A retired law enforcement officer, who is also a U.S. Army veteran, argued on behalf of similarly situated individuals who legally carry a concealed handgun and are wheelchair bound.

"So, if I am armed and I am in a gun-restricted location, where do they expect me and others in the same situation to 'put' our weapons," retired Col. R.E. Jackon of Sharonville posed to lawmakers. "Do I deserve to be arrested for breaking the law?

"Wouldn't you want me armed with my training if there was an Incident?"

House members, by voting overwhelmingly in favor of the bill, offered a resounding "yes" to Jackson's query.

HB 233 awaits Senate consideration. A committee assignment had not been made as of publication.

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