What You Should Know About Ohio Firearms Law

Ohio firearms laws are complicated. A failure to know these laws can turn an encounter with a citizen, or a seemingly innocuous personnel policy, into a lawsuit with the municipality on the losing side.

Yet, with general rules that have exceptions, caveats that change depending upon who is carrying the firearm, a multitude of types of firearms, and differing regulations that apply to various locations where the firearm is being carried, law enforcement personnel and public entities have a lot to know in order to understand the law. We offer the following summation of Ohio firearms law and highlight two recent cases that demonstrate why public entities and law enforcement personnel must develop a sufficient understanding of Ohio's firearms laws.

An Overview of Ohio Firearms Law

Ohio Revised Code § 9.68 declares that a person may own, possess, purchase, sell, transfer, transport, store or keep a firearm without license, permission, restriction or delay, except as limited by the United States Constitution, the Ohio Constitution, federal laws and state laws.

The law's broad authorization means that a person's rights to own, possess, sell, transfer, transport, store or keep a firearm in Ohio may only be limited when a federal or state law specifically imposes a restriction.

The law also provides that if a plaintiff prevails in an action against a political subdivision for a violation of the person's rights to own, possess, sell, transfer, transport, store or keep a firearm, the political subdivision must pay the attorney fees of the person who challenged the ordinance, rule or regulation. Thus, if you are wrong in your analysis, your error may be very costly.

In Ohio, there is no law that makes it illegal to openly carry a firearm on public property. Thus, "open carry" is generally legal. Ohio law curtails this broad general rule by prohibiting certain persons from possessing firearms. If a person is a convicted felon, a mentally incompetent person, or a person who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, that person is prohibited from carrying a firearm.

If a person wants to carry a concealed firearm, that person must comply with Ohio's concealed carry laws. Generally, if the firearm is something other than a handgun, then a person cannot carry it concealed on his or her person. If the firearm is a handgun, however, a person may carry it concealed in compliance with Ohio's concealed carry laws.

Ohio's concealed carry laws permit license holders to carry handguns concealed on their person. Yet, even persons with a concealed carry license are prohibited from carrying concealed handguns in certain "forbidden carry zones," including police stations, courthouses, school safety zones, and any state or local government buildings that are not primarily used as a shelter, restroom, parking facility for motor vehicles, or rest facility.

Ohio also regulates the proper handling of firearms in motor vehicles. Any person may transport or have firearms in a motor vehicle, so long as the firearm is unloaded and carried in a closed box; carried in a compartment that may be reached only by leaving the vehicle; carried in plain sight and secured in a rack made for that purpose; or, for larger firearms, carried in plain sight with the action open and the weapon stripped. Persons with concealed carry licenses may carry handguns on their persons while in their vehicles.

As with any complicated regulatory scheme, the devil is in the details. Public entities, generally, and, specifically, police officers must be careful to ensure that their actions do not infringe upon an individual's rights or regulate a person's actions in any manner not expressly permitted by federal or state law.

Case Study: Open Carry and the Fourth Amendment

The case of Northrup v. City of Toledo Police Div., demonstrates how the interplay between Ohio firearms law and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution can lead to conflict between citizens and law enforcement.

In June of 2010, Shawn Northrup was on an evening stroll with his wife, daughter, grandson, and dog. He was lawfully carrying a handgun holstered on his hip in plain view. A concerned citizen saw Northrup openly carrying a handgun and called 9-1-1. Police were dispatched and the officer initiated an investigatory stop to determine whether Northrup had or was engaging in any criminal activity. During this stop, Northrup allegedly made a "furtive movement" towards his gun. The officer responded by handcuffing Northrup and placing him in the back seat of his cruiser. Northrup was cited for failure to disclose personal information. Ultimately, the City dropped the charges.

Northrup responded by suing the City. He alleged that the officer's investigatory stop violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unconstitutional searches and seizures because the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to believe that he had committed a crime - after all, he was not breaking any law by openly carrying a firearm. The City defended the case by claiming that a 9-1-1 call stating that a man was openly carrying a firearm provides an officer with reasonable suspicion that a crime had or might occur and, as such, an investigatory stop was justified.

The Court rejected the City's argument and issued a decision holding that an officer's mere hunch that an individual openly carrying a firearm might have committed some crime does not give rise to the reasonable suspicion needed for an officer to conduct a legal investigatory stop without violating the Fourth Amendment.

The City of Toledo Police Division is appealing the Court's decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The tension between a person's right to lawfully carry a firearm and an officer's obligation to protect and serve can lead to conflict. Public entities must take steps to ensure that its officers are safe, educated, and well-prepared to address issues that may arise when dealing with persons carrying firearms.

Case Study: Codes of Student Conduct and Personnel Policies

In July 2014, Students for Concealed Carry Foundation sued The Ohio State University, alleging that the University's Code of Student Conduct, Workplace Violence Policy, Office of Student Life Standards of Conduct, and Residence Hall Handbook, all unlawfully restrict the student, faculty, and staff's right to carry firearms.

The Students for Concealed Carry Foundation case is still in the early stages of litigation. It may, however, be a harbinger of future litigation against public entities whose personnel policies or codes of conduct regulate firearms in a manner more restrictive than state and federal law. Public entities should review their personnel policies and codes of conduct to ensure no improper restrictions are present.

Conclusion

Whether responding to a concerned citizen, drafting a personnel policy, or creating a student code of conduct, law enforcement personnel and public entities must be informed about the nuances of Ohio firearms law. Consultation with legal counsel can mitigate exposure to future litigation.

To reach Attorney Chojnacki, call 216-781-1212 or e-mail bchojnaki@walterhav.com.