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Ohio House OKs bill to scrap penalties for drivers who don’t disclose concealed guns during traffic stops

Ohio Highway Patrol trooper John Williams holds the driver's license of a motorist he pulled over for speeding on the Ohio Turnpike, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. (Marvin Fong, The Plain Dealer/TNS)

Motorists who don’t tell law enforcement about concealed handguns they have in their vehicle would no longer face any penalty, under legislation passed by the Ohio House 58-32 late Thursday night.

House Bill 425, which now goes to the Ohio Senate, is one of a number of bills introduced by House Republicans to relax the state’s gun laws.

Right now, people who fail to notify an officer in Ohio that they have a gun with them face a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, and suspension of their concealed-handgun license. HB 425 would eliminate that penalty

The bill would also change the state’s current requirement that drivers must “promptly” notify an officer if they have a gun with them.

Even if the bill passes, drivers with guns would still be required to keep their hands in plain sight during traffic stops and can’t lie if an officer asks if they have a gun in the vehicle, among other rules.

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Proponents of the changes, which include gun-rights advocates, say the current requirement for prompt notification is too vague and the law is arbitrarily enforced. The burden, they say, should be on law-enforcement to ask whether someone is armed.

State Rep. Scott Wiggam, a Wooster Republican sponsoring the bill, offered “real-life scenarios” in which drivers try to notify an officer during a traffic stop that they are carrying a concealed handgun, but the officer told them to be quiet until he could run their license plates.

By the time the officer returns, and the driver is able to tell the officer about the gun, “at that point it’s too late,” Wiggam said. “You have just committed a crime, because the notification was not prompt enough.”

Forty-one other states do not have such a “duty to notify” law, Wiggam said. Of the nine states that do, Ohio has the most severe penalty for violations, he said.

Law-enforcement representatives have spoken against the bill, saying it would put officers at greater risk.

Some Democrats have also questioned why House Republicans are moving ahead with such a bill at a time when there is civil unrest in Ohio and around the nation. Republicans have countered that the measure would reduce tension by making the law clearer.

State Rep. Joe Miller, an Amherst Democrat, said the bill is “a political solution looking for a policy problem.” The bill, he said, would increase, not reduce, tension between law enforcement and motorists.

House GOP leaders had planned to pass the measure last week, but they postponed the vote out of respect for a memorial service for George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer last month.

In recent years, the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly has passed a number of measures to loosen requirements on concealed firearms, including allowing military service members and veterans to carry without a permit and removing the state’s ban on conceal-carry on college campuses and several other locations.

In the wake of last year’s mass shooting in Dayton, Gov. Mike DeWine put forward a number of gun-reform proposals, including a voluntary background check process for private gun sales and giving authorities greater power to send people with drug or alcohol problems to a psychiatric hospital, where they cannot legally have access to guns. The legislature has not acted on those.

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© 2020 The Plain Dealer