Ohio self defense gun law could change under Republican proposal

COLUMBUS -- Here's a scenario: Two people fire at one another on a city street. One dies. The other survives and says he acted in self-defense. 

Current Ohio law requires the survivor prove that claim. But some Republican lawmakers want to force prosecutors to prove it wasn't self-defense. Gun owners should be able to stand their ground, they say.

Sound familiar? It's one reason Florida police didn't immediately arrest neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman after he killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012. At least 24 states say individuals have no duty to retreat from an attacker if they are in a place legally. 

Ohio could become No. 25. 

Current state law allows individuals to act in self-defense if someone attacks them in their home or vehicle – commonly known as the Castle Doctrine. But this GOP proposal would take self-defense a step further. 

"Currently, Ohio is literally providing more legal protection to the perpetrators of violent crime than to the victims," said Sen. Joe Uecker, R-Miami Township, who introduced the bill with Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark. (A similar version is in the Ohio House.)

The GOP-backed proposal would:

Force prosecutors to prove that individuals did not act in self-defense. Current law allows individuals to say they acted in self-defense as an explanation for their actions, but defendants must prove it – not prosecutors. 

Eliminate the duty to retreat. Just because someone doesn't run away, doesn't mean he didn't act in self-defense.

Eliminate the requirement that locations – from daycares to police stations – post signs warning that guns are prohibited there. 

Reduce the penalty for illegally carrying a concealed handgun to a minor misdemeanor if that's the only crime the person commits. The current penalty is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.  

Eliminate the requirement for a concealed handgun license holder to keep their hands "in plain sight" – if doing so is impractical.  

That last change has Democratic Sen. Cecil Thomas, a retired Cincinnati police officer, worried.

"Whenever I approached a vehicle, the only thing that could hurt me was that person's hands. As long as I can see his hands, I'm pretty comfortable that he can't hurt me," Thomas said. The Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio agrees with Thomas.

But Uecker said people with shoulder injuries or arms in a sling cannot put their hands on a steering wheel, so this change would make allowances for them. 

Sen. Sean O'Brien, D-Bazetta, is concerned that GOP changes would make it nearly impossible to prosecute someone for a fatal shooting. If the survivor doesn't make a statement, prosecutors would have no way to prove she acted in self-defense. 

“As a prosecutor looking at this, I have some big concerns,” said O’Brien, a former assistant prosecutor in northeast Ohio's Trumbull County.

Previous attempts to pass a "stand your ground" law in Ohio fizzled. But Uecker told The Enquirer that new lawmakers are more supportive of gun rights, a change in the legislature's makeup that could make these bills easier to pass.

One such bill is reducing the penalty of failing to tell police you have a concealed handgun. On Tuesday, a panel of lawmakers passed a proposal to limit the violation to a $25 fine – instead of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. 

Copyright: Cincinnati Enquirer


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