2A Supporters Are Opposing This Ohio Bill - Here's How They Can Fix It Instead

A controversy’s erupted in Ohio over HB 646, a piece of legislation that would establish a pilot program in the city of Cleveland aimed at providing “problem-solving therapy sessions and related family support services to youth and young adults at risk for gun violence,” according to the bill’s author. According to critics of the bill, however, the measure could lead to gun confiscation, and State Rep. Nino Vitale responded to the bill on Facebook this week by proclaiming that he “will give them control over my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead hand.”

Rob Sexton, legislative affairs director for Buckeye Firearms Associaton, also has some concerns with the bill, and more importantly, who would be in charge of the pilot program.

Rob Sexton, the association’s legislative affairs director, said the bill creates a program run by people “sympathetic to gun control.” There is “too much authority granted to people we don’t know if we can trust.”

Sexton acknowledged nothing in the bill’s text talks about taking guns from people but said it could empower such efforts.

“The problem is that Ohio’s Director of Health is Dr. Amy Acton, who ostensibly issued the orders to shut down Ohio. Acton, a Democrat, worked as a volunteer on the 2008 campaign for Barack Obama, a staunch gun control advocate.

“But even more concerning is how this program would be implemented through health care providers, who as a group tend to advocate gun control. If the goal of the program is to sway youth away from crime and violence, why the narrow focus on guns? Guns don’t cause youth to commit crimes.”

The good news for Vitale and other gun owners is that I don’t think they have to worry about the bill (if it even passes) leading to gun confiscations. The bad news for the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Stephanie Howse, is that the program isn’t likely to do much to reduce violent crime or “gun violence” in Cleveland all by itself.

According to the text of the bill, it would establish “a pilot program that is based on the Friendship Bench Program, a mental health intervention program in Mbare, Harare, Zimbabwe. Under the program, specially trained certified community health workers shall provide individual, problem solving therapy sessions to youth and young adults residing in Cleveland, Ohio, who are at a high risk for gun violence.”

The “Friendship Bench” program that Howse’s bill references isn’t designed to prevent violent crime or “gun violence.” It’s meant as a way to combat the “treatment gap” for those diagnosed with mental illness in Zimbabwe.

The Friendship Bench uses a task-sharing approach to alleviate the situation by training lay health workers to recognize mental illness using a locally validated assessment tool and offer evidence-based problem solving therapy. These health workers are based in primary care clinics and are in regular contact with clients. A bench is placed within the clinic premises, where clients can speak with the health workers about their problems. We call this the “Friendship Bench”. Clients are also offered to take part in the income generation component of the Friendship Bench, the peer support group Circle Kubatana Tose, where they are taught to make bags out of recycled plastic and learn to share their stories with others in a safe environment.

How will that translate to the program that Howse is hoping to establish in Cleveland? It’s unclear, at least based on the text of the legislation.

After consultation with the Cleveland Division of Police, the Director shall invite to participate in the pilot program those practices, clinics, and centers that serve a significant percentage of youth and young adults who reside in Cleveland neighborhoods with the highest risk of gun violence and have space to accommodate the therapy sessions for patients and support services for families. From those that accept the invitation, the Director shall select the practices, clinics, and centers to participate based on their willingness to comply with the rules adopted

Who will actually determine what at-risk youth would participate in the program? The bill doesn’t say, though it does delegate most of the authority for establishing the program to the director of the state Health Department, and that seems to be where the objections of gun owners and Second Amendment groups are really focused. Dr. Amy Acton has been roundly criticized by conservatives for the lockdown measures in the state, including an attempt to mandate the wearing of facemasks that Gov. Mike DeWine rolled back a day after his original announcement. As Buckeye Firearms Association’s Rob Sexton pointed out, Acton volunteered on Barack Obama’s election campaign, and the Democrat is likely supportive of more gun control laws in the state (especially after reopen protesters, some of them armed, have protested outside of her home over the past couple of months). It’s quite possible that Acton will pack the curriculum for the therapy sessions with all kinds of anti-gun nonsense, but I’d still urge Second Amendment advocates in the Buckeye State to remain neutral on the bill for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, this bill actually represents a shift in thinking among some Democrat lawmakers that gun owners should be encouraging, not dismissing. Buckeye Firearms Association is also opposing two pieces of newly-introduced gun control legislation, and both of them are more old-school in their outlook. One is a ban on “high capacity” magazines (defined somewhat bizarrely as magazines that can accept more than 100 rounds), and the other is a specific training mandate for school districts that want to adopt a policy of armed school staff. Both of those bills are aimed at legal gun owners, as is the case with most anti-gun legislation. Howse’s bill, on the other hand, is aimed specifically at “youth and young adults” who are at a high risk of being either the victim or perpetrator of violent crime.

I think Howse made a mistake in specifically referring to “gun violence” in her legislation, because the goal shouldn’t be to get an 14-year old gang member to put down his gun and pick up a knife instead. The goal is about helping these individuals change their thinking, which will help them make better decisions, which will hopefully steer them away from the path that they’re on. Still, even with Howse’s legislative language, the focus of her bill are teens and young adults who are already likely known to law enforcement, but who’ve so far managed to avoid a serious criminal record. If gun owners say that politicians need to focus on the criminals instead of law-abiding citizens, we need to support those efforts when lawmakers actually do it.

Even if Acton turns the pilot program into a bunch of Bloomberg-approved talking points, Second Amendment advocates and pro-2A legislators can point out that they were right in their concerns about an anti-gun agenda sneaking into the therapy sessions, which is why the program not only shouldn’t be expanded, it shouldn’t be re-funded when the pilot concludes in October of 2023. Heck, shut it down early if the actual content of the curriculum is that bad, or amend Howse’s bill to provide some funding to develop the curriculum, with legislative approval required before the curriculum can be put in place.

Already we’re starting to see headlines like “Gun Rights Advocates Target Proposal To Help At-Risk Youth,” which is not a good look. We already have to deal with anti-gun media bias on a regular basis. We know we’re not going to get a fair shake from most media. That doesn’t mean we should give them an assist. Right now the media narrative is about Second Amendment advocates not giving a crap about young minority males, who are likely to be the primary recipients of these therapy sessions. Not only is that not a good look, I don’t think that’s actually the case among the gun owners that I know.

If Second Amendment advocates are right about anti-gun propaganda seeping into the conflict resolution therapy sessions, they can turn the narrative into “Gun control advocates were more interested in pushing their ideology than actually changing lives.” Gun owners and Second Amendment advocates really have nothing to lose by at least remaining neutral on the bill. It’s a small program that can be defunded if it goes off the rails, and has the potential, however slight, of actually helping to save some lives without trying to ban, license, or tax guns, magazines, or ammunition.

Personally, if I were a Republican lawmaker in Ohio I’d offer up a competing, yet complementary bill. Incorporate the Friendship Bench pilot into a larger program that will allow cities across the state to apply for grants to implement Project Ceasefire and Project Exit-style programs targeting the cities most at-risk individuals, who are also often the most responsible for violent crime. Virginia Republicans offered up a fantastic bill that would be an ideal model in Ohio, but unfortunately no Democrat would even sign on to the measure because they were too busy backing Ralph Northam’s sweeping anti-gun proposals. Republicans in Ohio control both chambers, and I think the bill would not only have an excellent chance of passing, but it would stand an even better chance of producing real results.

In a nutshell, here’s how the program works:

Project Ceasefire incorporates federal, state, and local law enforcement to provide targeted enforcement against the most violent gangs in the community. Project Exit, meanwhile, utilizes existing social services programs to help individuals with an “exit ramp” out of a gang and into a more productive realm of society.

The Friendship Bench could be a Cleveland-area component of Project Exit, while Project Ceasefire would help to identify the most at-risk youth and young adults and bring them into the program. The deal is simple: you’re going to stop shooting. We’ll help you if you let us, but we’ll make you if you won’t. Don’t want to sit on the Friendship Bench? No problem. Enjoy sitting before a judge in federal court on felon-in-possession charges, without any chance of a plea bargain. Or, you can take our help and you can get your GED, or even enroll in college, or vo-tech, or an apprenticeship. We can help you. We can also lock you up for a long time, but either way, you’re going to stop shooting.

The programs work, because believe it or not, there are a lot of gang members who aren’t that thrilled with their life choices. A chance at a new start is a godsend to them, and most individuals take advantage of the opportunity. A few don’t, and it’s important that police and prosecutors follow through with their promise to not offer them a plea bargain and a slap on the wrist when they’re arrested for a shooting or gun possession charge. When the help is available, and justice is swift and sure, homicide rates plummet. Neighborhoods become safe again. Kids can play outside. Lives are saved. Lives are changed.

That’s a much more comprehensive approach to dealing with both at-risk youth and a city’s most violent offenders than just offering some non-licensed therapy sessions for an hour a week, and again, law-abiding gun owners would have nothing to fear and nothing to lose with its implementation. At the very least, I think neutrality is the best position to take on Howse’s bill, but Republicans have the opportunity to bring an even better bill forward if they want to do so.