(published September 13, 2013)
Oberlin’s chief of police received an email from Brian Kuzawa, a resident of Ashland County, on August 2, the day before the Oberlin Family Fun Fair. In the email, Kuzawa argued that as an Ohio resident, he maintained the right to openly carry a firearm to the fair, and he planned to do so. While the town of Oberlin has municipal laws that preclude carrying firearms in public places –– such as parks –– the state of Ohio permits it.
Oberlin is not the first city in the state to confront the tension between state and municipal gun control laws. In 2006, the state of Ohio passed a law under a Republican legislature that permitted the open carry firearms in most public places, except schools and government buildings. Gun control laws regarding open carry fall under the category of a “general law,” which means that state open carry laws trump any municipal ordinance regulating gun control.
Historically, in the state of Ohio, cities that have fought to write their own local gun laws have failed. In 2008, the city of Clyde tried to challenge this and went to court with the state, pursuing stricter local gun control laws for concealed carry, but they eventually lost. In 2010, Cleveland also tried to challenge the state’s open carry laws, but also were unilaterally defeated. Oberlin is now trying to challenge the legislation; should they not amend the law, the state of Ohio could sue the city.
Taylor Reiners, OC ‘14 and the president of the Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians, spoke to compromise, recommending that the city amend the law, protestations aside. “Regardless of one’s opinion on whether or not guns should be allowed in parks, the fact is that [Oberlin city] is not going to win.”
But there are more issues at stake. Instead, the legislation brings to light larger issues regarding municipal versus state governance. City Council member Aaron Mucciolo says that he understands why the community is feeling frustrated.
“I can absolutely understand the psychological line that plenty of people have about this, even though it doesn’t legally impact anybody’s abilities, and probably will have no impact on actual actions of individuals coming to town or not. I can totally understand why it’s sensitive and why people are saying to the council that we want this ability to choose this as a community; we want this ability back.”
But Mucciulo also agrees that changing the ordinance is unlikely to have an effect:
“Changing words in our codified ordinances does absolutely nothing to impact today, tomorrow, the next day.”
At this juncture, Oberlin can proceed in three ways: it can sue the state of Ohio like Cleveland and Clyde did; it could face a lawsuit for not adhering to state code which supersedes its municipal authority; or, it could amend its law to reflect the state’s ordinance.
If Oberlin’s City Council elects to contest the state and bring its municipal law to the Supreme Court of Ohio, it would be, according to Reiners, “a losing battle –– it’s been challenged twice and they both lost. The resources they would use to fight this battle could be used for schools, education, or if they are really serious about safety, why not more police officers? Why not increase police presence in parks if they feel that is a concern?”
On the other hand, if Oberlin chooses not to act, the situation may get worse: a lawsuit brought by the state would put a strain on Oberlin’s resources. If Oberlin pursues neither of these options and chooses to simply amend its municipal law, it would scarcely have the support of many Oberlin residents, who, as Mucciolo emphasized, “have expressed in emails and in phone calls” that the legislation was against their interest.
The City Council voted in favor of amending Oberlin’s municipal law 4 – 3. The three council members who opposed the amendment said that grassroots organizations should aim to challenge the law at the state level. “If they wanted to create a petition and try and get it repealed at a state level, I think that would be a great idea,” added Reiners. “Bring it to the state so voters can vote on it! Then it won’t be just in the hands of the council.”
As the law currently stands, anyone who comes onto Oberlin College’s campus carrying a gun “would either be arrested or put on the No Trespass list,” according to Reiner. Certain students, like some members of the town community, have expressed frustration.
“It was upsetting to see that Oberlin’s efforts to maintain a community that has reasonable gun laws were thwarted by state code. That was disappointing and upsetting,” said Jesse Vogel OC ’14, former president of The Oberlin College Democrats.
As this conflict between state and town persists, this case, if anything, is a reminder of the power of local government.
“Courts have a lot of power that we don’t think about when we’re doing political activism here at Oberlin,” added Vogel. “This demonstrates how important it is to look at candidates all the way down the ticket. It’s not just the big people, but it’s all the judges, the local circuit judges, the district judges and the Supreme Court judges as well.”