Judge Rules Ohio's Concealed Weapons Law Is Unconstitutional

By JOHN NOLAN, Associated Press Writer

CINCINNATI (AP) - A county judge on Thursday blocked police from enforcing Ohio's decades-old ban on concealed weapons, ruling the law violates the Ohio Constitution.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman said the law improperly bars people from carrying weapons to protect themselves.

"There is no doubt that the very thought a potential victim might possess a firearm deters that element of our society that cares nothing about laws or human life but rather understands only one thing -- brute force," Ruehlman wrote.

His ruling permanently bars police in Hamilton County from enforcing the concealed-weapons ban.

Lawyers for Cincinnati, surrounding Hamilton County and the state planned an immediate appeal and will seek a stay of Ruehlman's order.

They will argue to the 1st Ohio District Court of Appeals that the order contradicts Ohio Supreme Court rulings in the 1920s that upheld Ohio's authority to prohibit carrying concealed weapons, said Richard Ganulin, an assistant city solicitor for Cincinnati.

As a lower court judge, Ruehlman cannot issue decisions that contradict the Ohio Supreme Court, Ganulin said.

Ohio allows only law enforcement officials or officers of the state and federal government to carry concealed weapons.

Ruehlman ruled in a lawsuit filed in July 2000 by a private investigator and four other people who said their jobs required them to carry weapons for self-defense.

Private investigator Chuck Klein and the others -- a fitness trainer, hairdresser, owner of a pizza delivery business and a food delivery businessman -- say that the Ohio Constitution allows people to bear arms and doesn't say that the weapons cannot be concealed.

Klein, 59, said he hopes the ruling prompts lawmakers to allow concealed weapons.

"I don't see how they can ignore it," Klein said. "It was a very gutsy move on the part of Judge Ruehlman to toss out a law that's been around about 80 years."

Gov. Bob Taft still does not want to sign a bill allowing concealed weapons unless a majority of law enforcement groups endorse it, spokesman Joe Andrews said.

Forty-three states allow concealed weapons in some form.

A lawmaker in Ohio whose committee is considering such legislation praised Ruehlman's decision as a proper reading of the Ohio Constitution.

"The concealed-carry issue is a policy issue that the Legislature should handle. But if a statute is put together that is unconstitutional, ... a judge that's doing his job properly will see that this law is unconstitutional," said state Rep. John Willamowski, a Republican from Lima and chairman of the House Civil and Commercial Law Committee.

Willamowski said he expects the committee to vote by the end of January on whether to send the bill to the House for consideration.

The Second Amendment Foundation of Bellevue, Wash., is paying for the workers' lawsuit. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, based in Washington, D.C., is helping fight the suit.

Toby Hoover, director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, said she hopes Ruehlman's order is successfully appealed.

"It's playing to the fear that we ought be fearful of all kind of strangers," she said.

Klein and the others argued that the ban subjects people to arrest before they get a chance in court to clear themselves by arguing they had legitimate self-defense reasons to be armed.

Defense attorneys countered that the right to bear arms does not prevent the state from regulating how people may carry guns. They said that concealed weapons pose a threat to police officers and others.

"Amidst all of the baying from gun opponents is the irrefutable fact that there will always be people in our society who refuse to follow any rules and who can never be reasoned with or rehabilitated," Ruehlman wrote. "These people have no conscience and no qualms about doing harm to innocent persons. As a consequence, every law-abiding citizen of this state has the right to protect him or herself with a concealed firearm."

Ruehlman defined law-abiding people as those not otherwise prohibited by federal, state or local law from possessing firearms. Ruehlman heard testimony over four days in November and December.

Lawyers defending the law had asked the judge to remove himself from the case. They said he couldn't make a fair ruling because his wife and baby were kidnapped at gunpoint outside a strip-mall camera shop in 1989.

Ruehlman's wife, Tia, said a gun probably wouldn't have helped her overcome her assailant. She said she believes that residents should be able to carry concealed weapons but had not discussed the case with her husband.

Ruehlman declined to comment on the request.

Anti-gun groups said they were worried about the case because of Ruehlman's past rulings. Those include his dismissal of Cincinnati's lawsuit against gun manufacturers two years ago.

In 2000, Ruehlman temporarily forbid enforcement of the concealed-weapons ban but was overruled by a state appeals court.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)