Carrying a rifle or pistol down the street is a legal right in Ohio — but how do police know a person isn’t about to go on a shooting spree?
That’s a question local officers would prefer not to answer, but have had to in recent years in Amherst and Oberlin during open carry incidents or demonstrations. Police officers in Cleveland may be answering it this week at the Republican National Convention.
Open carry protestors have previously appeared in volatile settings before such as Ferguson, Mo., in 2015 during protests over the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man shot by a white police officer in 2014. Like Ohio, Missouri is an open carry state.
So is Texas, where the potential dangers of open carry were displayed during the July 7 killing of five police officers in Dallas after a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Seven other officers and two civilians were wounded.
Between 20 and 30 protestors were carrying semi-automatic rifles when shooter Micah Johnson — armed with an AK-47-style semi-automatic rifle and a semi-automatic pistol — began firing. While under fire, officers were forced to try to determine if the heavily armed men who were wearing camouflage fatigues and bullet proof vests in the crowd were involved in the shooting.
“It’s amazing when you think that there is a gunfight going on, and you are supposed to be able to sort who the good guys are and who the bad guys are,” Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings told the New York Times.
Louisiana, where three police officers were gunned down over the weekend, is also an open carry state.
Gavin Long, a former Marine who served in Iraq, went on a rampage Sunday in Baton Rouge, ambushing officers with a semi-automatic rifle. He was spotted walking down a highway with an AR-15-style rifle. The shooting began when police stopped to investigate.
Long praised Johnson on social media, calling him “one of us.”
Dallas police chief David Brown told CNN open carry “doesn’t make sense” but police must abide by Texas law.
While the sight of someone openly carrying a gun in public often scares people who then call police, courts have determined that it doesn’t violate laws against inducing panic. So police don’t have probable cause to stop the person carrying the gun.
Like Brown, Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington police chiefs said they’re obligated to follow the law but said open carry makes their officers’ job harder.
Amherst police chief Joe Kucirek, whose department has three officers on extra convention duty, said most people openly carrying guns just want to make a point about gun rights, but some seek to provoke police. He said residents would expect police to stop someone carrying a rifle near a school, but officers could be sued for violating the person’s constitutional rights.
“That’s how crazy sometimes it gets when people push the envelope and play games to try and cause a little bit of a disturbance (but) they are within their right to do so,” he said. “It’s dangerous.”
Wellington police chief Tim Barfield said a person planning a mass shooting would be unlikely to openly carry beforehand and he strongly supports the Second Amendment.
However, Barfield agreed with Kucirek. “I personally don’t see the rationale for flaunting your right like that,” he said.
Brett Pucillo, president of Ohio Carry, said his group alerts police before open carry demonstrations and isn’t trying to provoke officers or intimidate residents.
Pucillo, whose group formed in 2012 and has about 200 members, took part in a 2013 demonstration in Oberlin along with Ohioans for Concealed Carry. He said open carry increases about personal protection.
Pucillo, who has a concealed carry permit, said he usually carries a pistol concealed but criminals are less likely to target people openly carrying guns. He said his group was formed to encourage open carry of guns and more people are doing so.
Concealed carry permit holders in Ohio must undergo criminal background checks. They must also pass a daylong course that includes firing a pistol — it is illegal to carry concealed rifles or shotguns in Ohio — and learning self-defense laws.
But no criminal background check or training is required to openly carry guns in Ohio.
Pucillo said his group encourages people to get training but doesn’t believe it should be mandated by law. He said openly carrying guns is more likely to cause confusion and fear than concealed carry but, “I would prefer dangerous freedom over perceived security any day.”
Despite its potential dangers, Barfield and Kucirek oppose abolishing open carry. Oberlin police chief Juan Torres supports elimination.
Torres said he respects the Second Amendment, but would prefer Ohio only allow concealed carry.
“Imagine if everybody were walking down the street with open carry,” he said. “It’s like we’re back in the wild, wild, West.”
However, open carry is unlikely to be overturned in the Republican-majority legislature, which strongly favors gun rights. State Rep. Dan Ramos (D-Lorain) said reform is being blocked by the National Rifle Association and Buckeye Firearms Association, which strongly influence state Republicans.
In 2013, the Oberlin city council was forced to eliminate an ordinance forbidding carrying guns in city parks because it didn’t comply with Ohio law. Ramos, whose district includes Oberlin, said communities should be able to restrict open carry because it’s more dangerous in highly populated areas than rural ones.
“People get nervous when they see someone with a firearm without a badge,” he said.
With the Oberlin gun issue in court, Amherst city council also scrambled to revise its laws against firearms in public parks.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.