Oberlin's law on firearms in parks makes city a target for gun litigation
By John Caniglia
Oberlin, OH, a bastion of liberalism, is bracing itself to deal with a state gun law that many residents and officials oppose.
City Council is reluctantly mulling a change to its law that prevents firearms in city parks, as it conflicts with an Ohio statute that permits guns in most public places, including parks. If City Council does not rescind the measure, gun owners can take the city to court. Cleveland lost a similar fight over a guns-rights issue in 2010.
"I'm not in favor of any of this,'' said Council President Ron Rimbert. "No one on Council is. But we need to get this passed. We have a responsibility to our citizens that we don't get caught up in any litigation. In Oberlin, we're protective of our family and friends. But this is a state law.''
The move comes weeks after an Ashland County man notified city police that the state law supersedes the city's. Brian Kuzawa told Tom Miller, the city's police chief, in an email Aug. 2 that he and his family would be attending a city park the next day.
He said he and his wife would be carrying guns, and they did not want to be "accosted by'' Oberlin police. He said Miller called back a few hours after the initial email and said it is legal to carry weapons in the city's park.
To show support for the state law and to educate others, Kuzawa said, guns-rights advocates went to the Park Street Park about 11 a.m. today to picnic and spend time with their families. About 36 people attended. Some carried firearms in the park where Kuzawa went with his family last month.
Oberlin Council revisited the local ordinance, passed in 1998, and sought solutions. Council is expected to decide Sept. 16. It has few options: It can rescind the local law so that the city follows the state's, which went into effect in 2006, or it can prepare for a legal fight.
Doug Deeken, an executive with Ohioans for Concealed Carry, said the issue is simple: "We don't want law-abiding citizens getting arrested in Oberlin for an unenforceable law. That's the crux of the matter.''
But Sharon Fairchild-Soucy, a member of Council, said her colleagues are opposed to the state dictating what the city can and cannot do, especially when it comes to guns.
"Oberlin does not want people bringing guns into its parks,'' she said.
Eric Norenberg, the city manager, agreed: "One of the biggest frustrations is that our council must act on this when there is clear, local sentiment against it.''
City officials have learned that others fought similar battles -- and lost.
The NRA and the Ohioans for Concealed Carry, previously successfully sued the city of Clyde over the same issue.
In 2007, Cleveland sued Ohio, claiming that the state law involving guns was unconstitutional because it infringed on Cleveland's home-rule authority, or its ability to adopt and enforce its local laws. Three years later, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled against the city, saying the law was constitutional.
In its decision, the state high court said that law brought uniformity to gun statutes across the state and without it "law-abiding gun owners would face a confusing patchwork of licensing requirements, possession restrictions and criminal penalties as they travel from one jurisdiction to another.''
David Noice, a guns-rights advocate from central Ohio, emailed Oberlin officials Aug. 2, the same day Kuzawa sent his notice to the police department. Noice was blunt: "Your city ordinance restricts the possession of firearms in city parks. This is no longer permitted by state law.''
He said the city is not alone in violating that law.
"There are numerous public entities that aren't compliant with state law,'' Noice said in an interview. "A lot of them simply don't realize it and are happy when we point it out to them. They move immediately to correct it. Oberlin looks like it will resolve this. But it is complaining every step of the way. It's fine that it has dissenting views, as long as it fixes the problem.''
Fairchild-Soucy said she believes she and her colleagues on Oberlin's council will fix the problem. She expects City Council to rescind the city's law, a move that would put the city in line with state law.
And she expects City Council to follow that with a vote of protest immediately afterward.