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Guns and the Village: Guns abundant in Ohio

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This is the second in our series “Guns and the Village.”
Click here to see all the articles in the series.

For one Miami Township resident, living out in the country was reason enough to own a gun. His handgun might deter a prowler or help him protect his family from an intruder when the police cannot.

“If you call the law here, it might be 20 minutes and they’ll come take a report,” said the resident, preferring to remain anonymous. “It’s not something that’s easily rectified by law enforcement.”

Yellow Springs resident Isaac DeLamatre owns a 12-gauge shotgun passed down from his grandfather to fulfill a long-held desire to hunt, butcher and cook wild game. He is still working up to his first hunt. In the meantime, he experiments with recipes for roast deer hock from game felled by hunter friends.

“I’m interested in hunting from a culinary standpoint and also from a sustainability standpoint,” DeLamatre said. “A gun is a useful tool for hunting deer.”

Meanwhile, Mark Duckwall’s .22-caliber rifle, which he now uses only recreationally, came in handy for keeping critters away when he owned a farm in Miami Township. Admittedly, the low-powered rifle is far different from the so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that are selling today in record numbers.

“If you need a 50-round clip to take on a skunk, you’re not a very good shot,” Duckwall said.

In the village, township and county, residents keep firearms for sport, hunting, animal control, self-defense, or because, they say, it’s their constitutionally-guaranteed right to do so. Some carry loaded guns in public. Others keep them locked up and virtually inaccessible. Some train their children to shoot at a young age. Others keep them away from firearms.

There are an estimated 310 million guns in the United States today — one for every man, woman and child — with about eight million new guns sold annually. Between one-third and one-quarter of all U.S. households have a gun. But how popular are guns in this area? How do Ohio’s laws affect our gun scene? Can guns be owned safely by law-abiding citizens? Or are new gun laws needed in Ohio to protect its citizens from gun accidents and gun-wielding criminals? This week, area gun owners and gun control activists weighed in on these and other issues.

Local gun interest soars

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting and increased calls for gun control, local demand for guns is skyrocketing. Guns — especially semiautomatic rifles — have been flying off the shelves at area gun stores at rates not seen since President Obama was first elected. Local firearms training courses are filling up fast while trainers struggle to meet the increased demand. Concealed carry permits in Greene County are at an all-time high and, swamped with permit applications, the county is taking 50 percent longer to clear them. A Hustead gunsmith reports he has a growing business serving customers in Yellow Springs and Miami Township and other nearby localities.

“It’s been absolutely insane,” Beavercreek gun shop owner Cameron Stegall said this week. Due to 148 percent higher sales this January, many of his shelves at the Dayton Armory are bare. Along with many other area gun stores, he has already sold out of the AR-15 rifle used by accused Newtown shooter Adam Lanza (they were gone three days after the school shooting).

The blitz, which Stegall attributes to fears that certain gun models might no longer be available, is not unprecedented. A gun rush also occurred after Obama was first elected and it took the industry six to eight months to recover from that onslaught, he said. The recent calls for gun control, including banning certain high-powered weapons, are behind the sales increase, he said.

“People are concerned about the possibility of not getting a certain kind of gun,” Stegall said.

Dayton firearms instructor Jeff Thompson is having a hard time keeping up with demand for his basic pistol shooting classes. In the last year he has gone from one 12-hour class per month to two to three classes each month. Thompson’s class, a requirement for a concealed carry license, is attracting new students for two main reasons, he said.

“People don’t want to be the victim, and people are afraid that their rights are going to be taken away,” Thompson said.

In Greene County, the wait to get a permit to carry a concealed gun in public has gone from 30 to 45 days because of the recent surge in interest, according to the Greene County Sheriff’s Office. Last year was a banner year for concealed carry in the county, with permits up 60 percent over 2011. In total there were 1,488 new permits and renewals in 2012, bringing the total number of permits awarded or renewed in the county to about 8,800 since 2004. Per capita, Greene County’s permit figures are on par with state averages.

Gunsmith Bob Fannin set up shop one mile north of the village on U.S. 68 three years ago and has had growing business since. He repairs, rebuilds and customizes guns for those who are into firearms for sport, hunting, antique collecting and self-defense.

“The fact that more people are against guns than for them is false,” Fannin said. “It’s popular here.”

State figures match these local reports. Last year Ohio set a new record for background checks on potential gun buyers, and the last two months of 2012 each set new monthly records. At 629,000 total background checks for 2012, Ohio had the seventh-highest figures in the country (it’s also the seventh-most populous), but remains well below leader Kentucky, which had a whopping 2.59 million checks. In the period from 2008 to 2012, the number of background checks in Ohio rose 80 percent, the ninth biggest jump in the country.

How to buy a gun

Buying a gun in Ohio is easier than in many other states. You can walk into any conveniently-located area gun store (there are some 50,000 retail gun stores in America, more than the number of grocery stores), browse the merchandise and, soon after, walk out with a firearm. There is no waiting period, you don’t need a permit to purchase and there is no limit on the number of firearms you can buy at one time. Once purchased, the gun doesn’t have to be registered.

The only requirements for buying a gun in Ohio are age and passing a basic background check. You must be 18 to purchase a long gun and 21 to purchase a handgun (the difference is because handguns are the weapon used in three-quarters of all firearms homicides, according to gun control activists). After a gun store employee checks your ID, they run an instant FBI background check to make sure you are not a felon, a fugitive, a domestic violence offender, a drug abuser or are mentally unstable (as determined by a court), among other disqualifying factors. The online check usually approves the gun buyer in under a minute. Denials are exceedingly rare. In the last four years, Stegall, the Beavercreek gun shop owner, has seen fewer than 10 customers denied, which, he said, is because ineligible buyers know to not even try. Nationally, less than one percent of background checks are denied, according to the FBI.

But the background check only applies to federally-licensed firearms dealers, and in Ohio licensure is only required of retail gun shops. Private dealers, whether selling at gun shows, out of their home or on the Internet, perform no background check. Gun control activists contend that these private sales account for 40 percent of all gun sales, so background checks do little to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Plus, there is no deterrence to providing false information on background check forms. Of the 80,000 potential gun buyers denied in 2010 because they lied on the forms, only 44 were prosecuted, according to the U.S. Deparment of Justice. Gun rights supporters, however, say private sales are less frequent and usually are between people who know one another.

Ohio gun laws — strict or lax?

Because Ohio generally doesn’t have any gun restrictions beyond what is federally mandated, the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives the state a letter grade of “D” for its gun laws (bordering states Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia all received “Fs”). In Ohio, firearms must be reported if they’re lost or stolen, but there are no limits on ownership of assault weapons or large capacity magazines, firearms dealers don’t have to obtain a state license, ammunition sales aren’t regulated and local governments lack power to regulate firearms or deny concealed weapons permits, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

“We have very little in the way of gun restrictions,” said Toby Hoover, director of the Toledo-based Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence. “[Gun rights supporters] say we have all of these gun laws, but we don’t.”

In 2004, Ohio became the 45th state to allow concealed carry of firearms, and since then the law has been made weaker and weaker, Hoover said. Permit holders can now carry a gun into bars and rest areas and gun rights supporters are currently working to make it legal to carry on college campuses, she said. And in Ohio permit holders don’t need “good reason” to carry a gun like they do in 10 states and local officials don’t have the discretion to deny permits.

Though cities like Cleveland once had stricter concealed carry laws than the state, court cases in 2008 and 2010 overthrew allowing a home rule municipality to restrict concealed carry within its borders. (State gun laws supersede all local ordinances in Ohio, except those relating to the discharge of weapons). Many Ohioans also might not know that while a permit is needed to carry a gun concealed, no such permit is required to walk down the street holding a gun in plain view, Hoover said.

But Joe Eaton, a Southwest Ohio representative for the statewide advocacy group Buckeye Firearms, contends that firearms are already one of the most regulated goods — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is heavily involved from manufacture to retail sales — and that Ohio’s concealed carry laws are some of the most restrictive in the nation. In Ohio, a full 12 hours of training, including two hours of shooting training, are required to get a concealed carry permit. No other state mandates more than eight hours, while some states, like Indiana, have no training requirement.

Fighting for, against gun laws

In Ohio, several bills aimed at tightening gun laws have been introduced in recent years in the state legislature, but failed to pass. A bill requiring background checks at gun shows was introduced in 2011 but died in committee. This year the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence will push for a new law mandating background checks for all private gun sales, which Hoover believes will help stem the ability of criminals to access guns.

“The bad guys won’t get them as easy,” Hoover said. “It’s like a speed limit, someone will speed but the rest of us will follow the law.”

There is also renewed interest in the Ohio Senate for a statewide assault weapons ban, according to Hoover. Last week a new federal law limiting assault weapons and high-capacity magazines was introduced in the U.S. Senate. Assault weapons are typically defined as semiautomatic firearms (where one bullet is fired every time the trigger is pulled), which have other military-style features such as a detachable magazine, pistol grip and folding stock. Gun control supporters say these weapons are designed to kill humans quickly and efficiently and cite FBI statistics that assault weapons are used in 20 percent of all fatal shootings of police officers.

But banning high-capacity magazines and so-called assault weapons won’t address gun violence, according to gun rights supporters, because guns are merely tools. According to Bob Sacco, president of the Ohio Rifle and Pistol Association, such laws are largely ineffective.

“Restrictions on inanimate objects enjoyed by law-abiding citizens are not going to do anything to curb someone’s evil intent,” Sacco said. “It doesn’t matter what the capacity of a magazine is, if you’re intent on doing harm, you could do harm on a five-round magazine or a 30-round magazine.”

Jim Irvine, president of Buckeye Firearms, defended the fact that semiautomatic weapons have a place in a gun owner’s arsenal. Of the AR platform (a type often used in mass shootings), he said their accuracy makes them great for competitions, they can be used for self-defense and the adjustable components allows for multiple users.

“I have one because it’s fun to shoot,” Irvine said. “You don’t have to be a big, strong guy to have this weapon. You can be a petite female.”

Organizations like the Ohio Rifle and Pistol Association oppose any additional restrictions imposed on gun-toting citizens because “it’s a slippery slope,” Sacco said. Of attempts to require registration of all guns, he asked: “Why would you want to know who has what unless you were going to come get them?”

But Hoover said she believes that such fears are exaggerated and that most Americans would support additional gun control measures based on common sense.

“Anyone can’t have any kind of gun they want and carry it with them wherever they want to,” Hoover said. “It’s isn’t just about you, it’s about everyone. Regulation is not confiscation… We have to be able to do something.”

Kids and guns

Especially egregious is Ohio’s dearth of laws protecting children from guns, Hoover contends. There is no child possession law, so while those under 18 cannot legally buy a gun (though there is no way of knowing whether an ID is checked during a private sale), they can be in possession of a gun.

In Ohio there are no child access prevention laws, which hold adults responsible for keeping firearms away from minors. A 2000 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that 55 percent of homes with children and firearms had at least one gun in an unlocked place. Unsecured guns can increase both accidental and intentional shootings, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

But gun rights supporters argue that child access prevention laws have not proven effective. According to the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, accidental deaths of children from firearms began falling well before such laws were enacted and the decrease has been a nationwide trend — not just in states where the child protection laws exist. They also suggest that some decline in deaths might be because of the National Rifle Association’s “Eddie Eagle” GunSafe Program, which was rolled out at about the same time.

Some gun owners say a more effective way of decreasing risk to children is exposing them to guns at younger ages. Sacco, also a retired detective sergeant of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, taught his son to shoot a gun as soon as he could hold a .22-caliber rifle, which was around age 6. At a young age they developed a greater respect for them, Sacco said.

“I think it decreases [children’s] risk because they’re taught that this is a dangerous item,” Sacco said. “There’s nothing worse than a child who encounters a firearm and doesn’t understand that it’s inherently capable of inflicting death. I think it’s demystified for them — it takes the forbidden fruit aspect out of the equation.”

Larry Moore, legislative chariman of the 1,100-member Greene County Fish and Game Association, started teaching his children and grandchildren about guns as toddlers. They learn early on that if they see a gun lying around they should get an adult immediately, he said. And they glean other valuable life skills from the practice, which is why shooting is a common activity in 4-H Clubs and Boy Scouts and why the Greene County Fish and Game Club boasts a variety of competitive youth events, including .22-caliber rifle matches.

“With the guns you have to teach respect and responsibility,” Moore said. “With competitive shooting you learn hand-eye coordination, but I think they also learn an extra amount of concentration and discipline.”

DeLamatre also teaches his children, ages 4 and 2, that guns are not toys — that they are dangerous and powerful. He doesn’t let them anywhere near his shotgun, which is kept locked up and out of reach. Unfortunately, he’s up against a culture that treats guns as entertainment, he said.

“We glorify guns and violence,” DeLamatre said. “We want to be safe and responsible with these things, but at the same time we treat them as toys.”

Why own a gun?

DeLamatre does believe guns can be useful tools for killing wild game (though he hopes to evolve to a bow and arrow). And, when his kids are older, he’ll take them hunting to teach them about the process. But he has no interest in handguns, whose sole purpose, he said, is to shoot people. And he doesn’t think of his weapon as a tool for self-defense since it is so inaccessible.

“It’s not for self-defense,” he said. “If you’re being safe with it, it’s not practical for self-defense.”

The anonymous township resident, who keeps a 9-millimeter handgun among other guns, hopes that criminals would be deterred merely because so many citizens are arming themselves today. He believes that guns can be kept safely, though they should be kept out of homes of unstable people. But, in truth, he would prefer a world without guns.

“I would really rather not own them, but that would only work if no one else owned them,” he said.

Thompson, the firearms instructor, also thinks that guns can be kept safely, especially if people follow the three basic rules of firearms safety: keep it unloaded until ready-to-use, keep your finger off the trigger and never aim it at something you’re not intending to shoot. After a stint in the military, Thompson didn’t carry a gun, but then, while working for a volunteer organization, a gun was pulled on him. He has had a concealed carry permit ever since.

“After you have one pulled on you, you don’t ever want to feel that helpless again,” Thompson said. He added that gun rights activists shouldn’t keep lawful citizens from owning guns.

“If you don’t want to shoot one, you don’t have to shoot one,” he said. “But you can respect people’s right to take care of themselves and their family.”

Hoover’s involvement in the gun issue also stems from a firearms incident. Her husband was working at his business when a prison escapee shot and killed him during a robbery with a gun purchased on a street corner. Instead of arming herself, she set out to make guns more difficult to acquire by those intent on doing harm.

“I’ve been able to see that there’s a lot wrong with our system,” Hoover said. “And now people are saying, ‘I cannot morally be quiet anymore.’”

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