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Ohio


Oberlin council may rescind its gun ban, but is considering alternatives to keep it in effect
Gun rights groups want the city to comply with a state law allowing guns in parks; council members say they likely will, but have other options
by WKSU's KABIR BHATIA


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Kabir Bhatia
 
Joe Hanlon (left) and Dave Noice came from downstate to let Oberlin know it's in violation of a 2007 state law allowing guns in parks
Courtesy of K. Bhatia
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The city of Oberlin is scheduled to vote tonight on whether to repeal a ban on handguns in its parks – a ban that’s trumped by a state law allowing the guns. And as WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports, it appears to be the first step in a potentially expensive process.
Oberlin council may rescind its gun ban

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The small college town of Oberlin -- about 40 minutes west of Cleveland – is described by conservative blog Breitbart.com as one of the most liberal places in Ohio. President Obama won 90 percent of the vote here and the town banned guns in its parks in 1998. But for the past two weekends, dozens of gun owners have shown up – with hardware -- at Park Street Park.

A gun owner from neighboring Ashland County recently informed Oberlin it is violating a 2007 state provision that forbids cities from adopting any gun restrictions tougher than state law. And state law now does allow concealed handgun permit holders to carry firearms in its parks.

“Legally armed citizens are not the threat. And the laws wouldn’t be followed by the criminals that they should be worried about.”

That’s Dave Noice from Galloway in central Ohio. The Oliver Hardy-looking IT specialist smiles pleasantly and calmly explains why he thinks Oberlin should get in line with the Ohio Revised Code.

“Just because somebody thinks this is a nice place doesn’t mean crime doesn’t happen. We don’t know when it’s going to happen, so we just assume like Boy Scouts: ‘Be Prepared.’ We just like to have that option not taken away from us just because we step over that invisible line that says ‘This is now a city park.’”

Potential trouble
Looking over the park -- with two jungle gyms, a basketball court, a bank of swings and about 4 acres of greenspace -- he can fathom trouble. 

“Can I imagine a situation? Well, sure. Imaginations are a wonderful thing. What’s likely to happen at 12 o’clock in the afternoon on sunny Sunday? Admittedly, the statistics say not a lot.”

A different community
The Rev. David Hill of the First Church in Oberlin United Church of Christ, says “we don’t spend our lives living in fear in Oberlin. These folks obviously have security issues, which we can’t fathom, especially in this town.”

He’s among those that want Oberlin’s City Council to keep the gun ban and pursue the legal fight to keep it.

“It’s a community that stood up to having slave catchers spirit people off," he says. "This is a community that was on the cutting edge of the Fair Housing law. So we have a very strong sense of values. And guns do not fit in with that sense of values.”

The cost of the fight
But legal fees were a lot lower 50 years ago. Cleveland took a similar fight to restrict guns to a higher court, and lost. Clyde, near Sandusky, spent $70,000 on its case before losing.

Oberlin City Council has acknowledged that – with its own restrictions in place – it faces legal action not just from gun rights groups, but also its own insurance companies. Sharon Fairchild-Soucy is vice-president of City Council. She has lived in Oberlin her entire life.

“We met with Dan Ramos, who is our state representative. And he suggested to us that the courts in Ohio and the legislature are even more intensely conservative than when the Clyde and Cleveland cases went through. So while it might give us some moral satisfaction to take this to court, in terms of sheer practicality of it -- and frankly the glee it would give the gun owners -- I’m opposed to going that route alone.”

Council's options
At least three other councilmembers, the council president, and the city manager feel the same way. Fairchild-Soucy says council could table the vote for further discussion and she's not opposed to that.

“[But] I don’t prefer it because I really am concerned about these people coming to our parks with guns. I think it’s an accident waiting to happen.”

But it seems they will rescind the ordinance, and then she wants council to immediately adopt a resolution of protest. After that, she says there are several options such as "giving or leasing a minor percentage of our parks to the public schools. Gun laws are different for any property that’s related to the public schools. So if we could pull this off legally, it might be one option.”

Fairchild-Soucy says Oberlin is also looking into working with other communities and organizations to put the state law up for a voter referendum. But until then, the city’s parks would be in compliance with state law.

Going to the park
For much of Sunday’s rally at Park Street Park, only two families came for the slides and swings instead of the spectacle. One was John Blocker’s. He lives up the street and was swinging his 4- and 6-year-old sons. And he wasn’t aware of the ordinance fight. But once he found out.

“If the state law trumps it, then it doesn’t matter, right?  I’m so confused why these people are here if the state law trumps it."

A 'dead' law
Several former council members attended the rally and argued that, since the city law is dead law, there’s no reason to scrub it from the books.

For example, Oberlin still has a 1974 law on the books saying pop can only be sold in bottles, with a deposit. That’s no-doubt violated hundreds of times, daily.

But keeping the ordinance around – dead or not -- is still a problem for Joe Hanlon, a gun dealer from Fairborn.

He says other states also have had dead gun laws, and individual police departments have tried to enforce them.

“No matter how many cases got thrown out of court, every time they tried to enforce it- they say you can beat the rap, but you can’t beat the ride.”

In Ohio, such cases would result in a “loser pays” situation for the municipality trying to enforce its own laws. Hanlon and Dave Noice say, in addition to asking communities to comply with the state law, they plan to challenge the laws for colleges next, saying students 21 and over should be able to arm themselves on-campus in the case of attack.
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