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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2008

Ohio Supreme Court justices weigh gun ordinances for cities

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Several Ohio Supreme Court justices yesterday struggled with the question of whether cities have the right to prohibit guns in their parks.

More than one appeared to question choices made when lawmakers set out a patchwork of places where guns would be off limits under Ohio's 4-year-old law legalizing the carrying of concealed weapons in the state by licensed, law-abiding citizens.

"The General Assembly has made a lot of classifications that don't seem to make a lot of sense frankly," said Chief Justice Thomas Moyer. "That's our challenge here."

At issue is the Sandusky County city of Clyde's ordinance making it a crime to carry "deadly weapons" in city parks, an ordinance enacted after the state passed its law. The Supreme Court had previously refused to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling upholding a similar Toledo ordinance.

The state law prohibits carrying concealed weapons into police stations, sheriffs' offices, prisons, airports, mental institutions, courthouses, government buildings, universities, churches, child day-care centers, bars, restaurants or arenas if they serve alcohol, school property, and any place deemed off-limits under federal law. Municipal parks are not on the list.

The law also grants private property owners the right to post signs declaring their property off limits to guns, but does not grant a similar right to local governments when it comes to public property.

The attorney for the city and a former state legislator, John C. McDonald, tried to keep the focus on local governments' constitutional right of home rule and whether the state law's patchwork of exceptions meant it could not be applied uniformly across Ohio.

But the broader debate over concealed carry and the constitutional right to carry guns couldn't help but bleed into the arguments.

"Have we forgotten that law-abiding people are in a partnership with the state and police to stop crime?" asked Daniel L. Ellis, attorney for Ohioans for Concealed Carry, the organization that successfully challenged Clyde's ordinance at the lower court level.

"The fundamental right to protect ourselves is just as important as the state's right to prevent crime," he said.

Justice Paul Pfeifer noted that he was unaware of any problems that have been created by the legalization of concealed carry in Ohio. But he went on to conjure up an image of a jogger strapping on a gun to his jogging shorts in a park. At one point he suggested that pedophiles are a greater danger in city parks and he drew laughs when he suggested a bullwhip might be a more appropriate weapon.

"What's the need to be packing in a public park?" he asked. "What's the compelling need?"

The Toledo-based 6th District Court of Appeals, which had previously upheld Toledo's ordinance, struck down Clyde's law on the ground that it conflicts with the state's concealed carry law. Clyde was joined by the winners in the case, the state and Ohioans for Concealed Carry, in urging the Supreme Court to hear the case to settle the dispute once and for all.

Ohioans for Concealed Carry has argued that allowing municipalities to adopt differing rules on where guns are allowed places gun owners at risk of inadvertently breaking the law whenever they cross municipal boundaries.

Mr. Ellis argues that, by making it a criminal misdemeanor to carry a gun in the park, the city had waded into police powers in violation of a statewide prohibition on gun laws deemed stricter than state or federal law.

"My concern again is whether this is truly a general law when it's riddled with these exceptions," Justice Judith Lanzinger told Mr. Ellis. "You want us to take a very broad view of what a general law is."

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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