Why some Ohio Republicans are struggling to gain traction on the gun issue in 2010: A History Lesson

by Chad D. Baus

The campaign run-up to the 2010 elections got in full swing more than a year ago, as primary candidates wrestled for their parties' nomination. But pro-gun rights voters were largely unable to speak into the primary process, since some of the candidates with the more "questionable" gun rights records were unopposed. Now that the primary is behind us, however, some very interesting races are beginning to take shape in the Buckeye State.

Once upon a time, Republicans could count on nearly universal support from people who place gun rights among their top concerns when entering the ballot box. But those days are gone, and the Ohio GOP establishment just can't seem to understand why. So before taking a look at a few of this year's races, let's take a little walk down memory lane.

The first major attempt to overturn the century-old ban on concealed carry in Ohio came the mid-1990's. The bill was defeated when Republican Speaker of the House Jo Ann Davidson refused to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Her reason? Republican George Voinovich - then state governor, now lame duck Senator, was opposed. (And who was Voinovich's lieutenant governor from 1990 to 1994? None other than Mike DeWine. More on him below.)

In 1998, Republican Bob Taft was elected to the governorship in Voinovich's place, after Taft assured voters that he would support efforts to pass a concealed carry law.

Even though Republicans now had control of both branches of the General Assembly and the governor's office, gun owners were forced to wait four more years before the second major attempt to reform Ohio's gun laws. That effort failed when Republicans in the Senate amended egregious gun control language into a concealed carry bill that had already passed in the House. Their reason? Governor Taft had demanded it under threat of veto. The bill died when House Republicans decided not to return to session for a concurrence vote, having learned that Taft was still opposed to the poorly-amended bill.

In 2004, Taft finally signed concealed carry legislation - something he had promised to do more than six years earlier. But the bill was filled with poison pill amendments inserted to appease the Republican, who had repeatedly threatened to kill the entire effort with his veto pen.

Yes, it's true that the Democrats over those same years, had they been in the majority, would never have brought such legislation to a vote, just as it's true that most of the people who voted against these bills over the years were Democrats. But the bottom line for pro-gun voters in 2004 was that after a more than a decade of Republican dominance in the House, Senate and governor's office, the best the "pro-gun" party could come up with was the worst shall-issue concealed carry law in the nation.

Despite Republicans having controlled both branches of the General Assembly since 1994 (and the Governor's mansion since 1991), it took more than 70% of that time to pass a concealed carry law - and that one of the most restrictive, difficult-to-follow laws of its kind in the nation. With Republicans at the helm, the game of offense on restoring gun rights had been played, but it was played in inches, rather than yards.

In those many years, state-level pro-gun activists found themselves fighting more with Republicans (Bob Taft, Betty Montgomery, Mike DeWine and George Voinovich top the list) than with anyone in the Democratic party. And I will never forget the terse response that came down from the Communications Director of the ORP in 2004, when a voter complained about the poisoning of the concealed carry bill by Taft and then-Senate President Doug White (also a Republican):

"Good luck getting concealed carry out of the Democrats."

Republicans lost the governor's office two years later. Voters had replaced Taft with a staunchly pro-gun Democrat (current Gov. Ted Strickland).

The ORP's "good luck" statement came to mind in early 2008, because although concealed carry was already law, it took Strickland to pull a decent version of Castle Doctrine through the General Assembly, where Republican leaders repeatedly tried to water it down. It came to mind again in late December of that year, when Senate Republican leaders nearly succeeded in sneaking a large concealed handgun license fee increase past gun owners on the final day of session, while at the same time shirking yet another opportunity to pass improvements to the state's firearms law.

So while state Republican leaders can point to improvements in the form of statewide preemption of local gun control laws, Castle Doctrine legislation, and the reform of the most egregious provisions of the original concealed carry law, the truth is that in many cases, GOP caucus leadership, especially in the Senate, had to be dragged kicking and screaming to pass these improvements. At the end of their nearly two decades in power, the State of Ohio remains saddled with severely archaic firearms laws.

Democrats assumed the majority in the Ohio House of Representatives after the 2008 election. Voters had chosen to maintain the pro-gun majority, however, even as the balance of power shifted to the other side of the aisle. Pro-gun improvements to the law were passed less than six months after the beginning of session, via an amendment to the bi-annual budget. The Democrat-controlled House also began hearings on a restaurant carry bill.

At the same time, ORP Chairman Bob Bennett retired, passing the reins to Kevin DeWine. Chairman DeWine toured the state promising a get-well plan and better candidates.

More than fifteen months after the start of the two-year session, in March 2010, the Republican-controlled Senate finally began its own hearings on a version of restaurant carry, a bill which also includes a reform of Ohio's antiquated car carry requirements. The goal had been to pass restaurant carry before the fall elections, but Republicans had moved too slowly, passing and sending their bill to the House only hours before they were scheduled to adjourn for the summer. The House is not expected to return to session until after the November elections.

Which brings us to the subject of the interesting 2010 races.

When it comes election-time, and despite the Republicans' rather anemic history on gun rights during their nearly two decades as the dominant party in the legislature and governor's office in Ohio, Republican party leaders still seem shocked when pro-gun volunteers are less than enthused about the party in general, or are unwilling to support the entire slate of candidates simply because they have a "R" behind their name.

Recently, the Ohio Republican Party (ORP) was quick to mock Democrat Senate candidate Lee Fisher (Ted Strickland's current Lt. Governor and a long-time anti-gun extremist), for having attempted to back-pedal on his support for gun control.

The ORP quickly launched a web video comparing Fisher's long anti-gun record with his new campaign rhetoric:

This criticism is certainly valid. Lee Fisher has been a major player in the attempt to disarm law-abiding citizens. When he unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1998, he announced his candidacy with Sarah Brady (from the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence) at his side. He has served on the Board of Directors for Handgun Control Inc., which was later renamed by the Brady bunch). He is an avid supporter of gun registration, waiting periods, "assault rifle" bans, and legislation that would result in the end of gun shows. Fisher has been quoted as saying "I never met a gun control bill that I didn't like" during his failed 1994 campaign for governor.

But for those paying any degree of attention, the ORP video criticizing Fisher's flip-flop comes off as nothing short of hypocritical, due to some of the other races in play across the Buckeye state.

For example, the 2010 race for Ohio Attorney General pits former U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, a Republican, against current state Attorney General Richard Cordray, a Democrat. Mike DeWine has every bit the abysmal record on guns that Lee Fisher has.

Among the many votes that earned the former senator a ranking among the Top 10 anti-gun U.S. Senators were sponsorships and votes for bills that contained the same proposal to limit private transfers of firearms at gun shows that Fisher has supported. In 2006, during his failed re-election campaign, DeWine earned an endorsement from the Brady bunch (he remains the only Republican Senator ever to have done so). Now that he seeks to return to elected office, however, DeWine is busy sending mailers bragging about his "strong support for our 2nd Amendment rights," and publicly announcing that he was attending a class to obtain his Ohio concealed handgun license.

The same type of video the ORP produced about Lee Fisher could just as easily be made about Mike DeWine, and if the leaders at the ORP had any measure of the aversion to election-year conversions that they display in the Fisher video, they would have kicked Mike DeWine to the curb long ago, rather than having pro-actively cleared a path for him to the nomination.

As for the incumbent Democrat DeWine wishes to unseat, it has been reported that Richard Cordray long-ago expressed support for a federal "assault weapon" ban. However, he has long-since proven to have "seen the light," and has chocked up an impeccable record on gun rights since becoming Attorney General. Yet despite the clear contrast in this race, some still have the nerve to be critical of Republican gun owners who are refusing to line up behind DeWine.

In the race for governor, we again see the ORP failing to display the kind of shock and outrage about a poor historical record on guns that they display in the Fisher video.

In this contest, Governor Strickland is seeking reelection. His Republican opponent is John Kasich, a former Congressman with, at best, a 50-50 lifetime voting record on gun rights. In 1994, Kasich infamously broke with leaders of his party and negotiated a deal with the Clinton administration that ensured passage of the now-defunct federal "assault weapon" ban. In 1999, Kasich voted twice to impose mandatory background checks on firearms sales between private individuals at gun shows.

In recent years, Kasich has indicated several times that he has changed his mind on the issue of gun rights. But despite the ORP leaders' feigned derision for Fisher's supposed new-found belief in the Second Amendment, they just can't understand why many gun owners are also unsure what to make of Kasich.

Republican leaders are also wondering "where is the outrage" from the gun rights community over the Ohio Democratic Party's unsuccessful attempt to obtain the list of concealed handgun license-holders. While any attempt to access the private, personal information of CHL-holders is offensive, there is a certain sense of irony in the fact that the ODP wanted the list so it could brag about its pro-gun candidates, and inform CHL-holders about the anti-gun records of certain Republicans. It also bears noting that the only reason the records are quasi-available in the first place is because of Republican Bob Taft.

In January 2009, at the beginning of the current legislative session, I offered these words of advice to ORP leaders who were openly wondering what they had done to lose their dominance, and asking for advice on how to regain the trust of voters:

If Republican leadership in the General Assembly hope to prove that they are truly ready to earn the pro-gun vote, they are going to have to be about results, rather than rhetoric. They should immediately invite representatives of Ohio's pro-gun organizations, and the NRA, to educate them on just how much reform is needed in Ohio's firearms laws. (Note: the Democrats have already asked for just such a meeting!) And they should be prepared to work with pro-gun Democrats on a bill that can pass, even if that means Democrat legislators and the Governor will share in the credit.

Now that the session time left for the 128th General Assembly can be measured in hours, it is clear that they did not take this approach. The slow action of Senate Republican leaders means that if Governor Strickland has the opportunity to sign a restaurant and car carry reform bill into law, it will not come until after the November election.

While Republicans may think they were sucessful in denying Strickland another opportunity to prove his pro-gun credentials before the election, what they really did was miss an opportunity to reinforce (re-establish?) their own. As such, they will continue to struggle to gain traction on what was once an issue that they dominated.

Chad D. Baus is the Buckeye Firearms Association Vice Chairman.

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