Council Wins Gun Lawsuit

Hannah Jackel-Dewhurst

Last week a judge ruled in favor of the City Council in a lawsuit over a city ordinance that reiterates a state law banning unlawful possession of firearms in public parks. The decision is significant because it states that municipal governments have the right to file ordinances regulating the use of firearms so long as those ordinances complement state law.

The plaintiffs, Brian and Janae Kuzawa, who are not Oberlin residents and were supported by the organization Ohioans for Concealed Carry, argued that municipalities cannot pass ordinances regulating the use of firearms. The court ruled in favor of the ordinance, so if the Kuzawas do not appeal within 30 days, it will remain on the books. The ordinance, as well as state law, also bans a list of weapons — from slingshots to crossbows — from being brought into parks.

The ordinance is an amended version of one from the 1970s that, according to Oberlin Law Director Jon Clark, stated that possession of firearms in city parks was illegal. At the time the ordinance was written, it was not in conflict with state law. By the summer of 2013, however, it no longer matched Ohio’s concealed carry laws.

The issue was raised, Clark said, when “we [the city of Oberlin] got a call from somebody that said they were coming to town and intended to bring their firearm.” According to Clark, the caller pointed out that the ordinance against firearms in parks conflicted with Ohio’s current gun laws. Following this call, the visitor in question came to Oberlin, firearm in tow, without incident.

Following that incident, the Council began discussions to amend the ordinance. During the summer and early fall of 2013, Ohioans for Concealed Carry staged two demonstrations in protest of the ordinance. Gun rights advocates from surrounding areas came to Oberlin openly carrying firearms. The City Council held three reading sessions regarding the ordinance. During one of these sessions, gun-rights protesters, toting their weapons, came and, according to City Council member Bryan Burgess, said that they intended to sue the city of Oberlin regardless of whether or not the ordinance was amended.

This led to a debate among Council members. While both Burgess and fellow Council member Sharon Soucy said the entire Council agreed that they ought to have the right to keep firearms out of city parks, there was a disagreement about whether or not the ordinance should be amended. Burgess, along with some community groups like God Against Guns, felt that the best course of action would be to not amend the ordinance, despite the conflict with state law.

“We have a responsibility to protect our citizens any way we see fit, and I would prefer to stand by my beliefs,” Burgess said. “I knew [refusing to amend the ordinance] would put us in conflict with state law, but I don’t believe in the state law.” Burgess’ approach would have meant a higher risk of losing when Ohioans for Concealed Carry took the issue to court, which concerned some Council members.

Soucy felt that amending the ordinance but keeping it on the books was still taking a stance.

“I thought we should get in basic compliance with the state but fight that we did have home rule to make this decision,” Soucy said.

The City Council ultimately decided to rewrite the ordinance to complement state law while also expressing its disagreement with the law. The Council also filed a resolution protesting its lack of autonomy regarding firearms in city parks.

The current ordinance simply reiterates state law. Still, Ohioans for Concealed Carry contend that municipal governments do not have the right to pass any ordinances that regulate firearms, even if they do not conflict with state law in any way. The plaintiffs still have 30 days to appeal the decision.

Soucy sees this as a significant victory for the City Council.

“We went to court with a limited issue, and we won, so now that stands as a precedent,” she said.