COLUMBUS, Ohio – As Gov. Mike DeWine uses his twice-weekly bully pulpit to detail Ohio's fight against the coronavirus, the Republican chief executive has also continued his so-far unsuccessful crusade against gun violence.
After laying out pandemic stats and and warnings about masks and social distancing safety measures, the governor typically also pleads with fellow Republican lawmakers to act on his legislation addressing gun violence in the state, although he skipped that routine this Tuesday.
He proposed the measure last year in the wake of the Dayton mass shooting that killed nine people and injured more than two dozen.
“We should all be sick and tired of picking up the newspaper and seeing the things that we see literally every single day — our fellow Ohioans injured or killed through senseless violence,” DeWine said on Oct. 6, noting at least 42 people had been shot in the past week and more than half died.
He's made similar points week after week, usually on Tuesdays, though this Tuesday was an exception as he cut his normally 90-minute briefing to an hour to begin brainstorming calls with leaders of three Ohio counties seeing high rates of coronavirus spread. The governor wanted to leave plenty of time for reporters' questions, said spokesman Dan Tierney. As far as the governor's gun violence message, “he's done it on different days each week,” Tierney said.
So far, Republican leaders remain cool to DeWine's pleas. House Speaker Bob Cupp, a Lima Republican, said last week there are concerns the legislation would impinge on gunowners’ constitutional rights. He said he doesn’t think there’s enough time left this session to give the issue the “great deal of study and balance” that it requires.
GOP Senate President Larry Obhof says he’s open to discussion, while noting the Legislature has already dealt with some aspects of the governor’s wish list. For example, a Senate-passed bill that would expand access to state psychiatric hospitals for the seriously mentally ill is now pending in the House.
Democrats, in the minority in both chambers, favor some of DeWine's concepts but don't have the numbers to help the measure pass. And some felt the governor didn't go far enough, such as including a “red flag” law to restrict firearms for people perceived as threats.
A key element of the governor's “STRONG Ohio” proposal is boosting penalties for felons committing new crimes with guns. The need has only grown more dire since then, DeWine said. The proposal also increases and improves background checks for people seeking to buy a gun or take ownership through a transfer, and would give judges the ability to hand down tougher sentences for felons found guilty of possessing weapons.
The proposal has had three hearings in the Senate Government Oversight & Reform Committee, but none since December.
The bill's Republican sponsor, Sen. Matt Dolan of Cleveland, said he remains optimistic something could happen during this year's post-election lame duck session.
“This is not an attack on the 2nd Amendment,” Dolan said. Instead, he said it's making sure that violent or mentally ill people who are legally prohibited from owning a gun don't get ahold of weapons.
Obhof also said boosting law enforcement efforts can help address gun violence.
“There are a number of issues that we’re either working on, or have worked on, or have already passed that relate to these topics,” Obhof said.
The debate comes as killings by guns and non-fatal shootings are spiking across Ohio and around the country, with the violence blamed on record unemployment because of the pandemic, frustration over state stay-at-home orders, and anger at cases of police brutality and racial injustice.
In Columbus, Ohio's capital and largest city, homicides are on track to top the record of 143 set three years ago. Cincinnati's homicide rate is also running well ahead of last year's and is also on track to beat the all-time high of 86 nearly 15 years ago. The number of Cincinnati shootings is also way up: at least 405 so far this year compared to 294 at the same time last year.
In Cleveland, homicides by gun are running nearly 40% higher so far this year compared to last. The city's total number of homicides — 150 to date — is at the highest level in almost 30 years. The record, more than 300, was set 51 years ago.