Homicides have declined by almost 20 percent in Cincinnati compared to this time last year, but the improvement hasn’t stopped the city council from imposing a couple of new gun control measures. Council member Liz Keating’s ordinances aimed at lost or stolen firearms were approved unanimously by the council on Wednesday, but neither of them are going to have much of a positive impact on public safety. In fact, there’s a pretty good argument that they could end up making things worse.
Keating’s two proposals are complementary of each other. The first requires anyone who loses their firearm or has it stolen to “immediately” contact police to let them know or risk a misdemeanor charge or a civil penalty if their gun is found and it hasn’t been reported, while the second ordinance would charge gun owners who’ve had a gun recovered by the Cincinnati police to pay a $200 fee before their property is returned to them. Keating says the new measures are meant to weed out straw buyers from gun owners who are actually victims of theft.
“Most of the time what we’re seeing, and data shows us, is a lot of people will call the ‘strawman purchase,’ the ‘girlfriend purchase,’ the ‘revolving door’ of these firearms,” the councilwoman explained.
What will happen in the scenario Keating mentioned is people with clean backgrounds will purchase a gun and pass it off to their friends or family to use it for illegal activity. Then, once the firearm shows up at a crime scene, the legal owner will claim it as stolen and request it back and the cycle continues.
“It’s a vicious cycle and it’s killing our children in Cincinnati,” she said. “So what we did is we took a state law – this is currently a state law where you have to knowingly, immediately report a lost or stolen firearm. We’re enacting it locally because the prosecutor’s office is at capacity and they do not have time to go after these things.”
As Keating mentioned, the state of Ohio already has a similar law requiring gun owners to report any lost or stolen firearms to local police “forthwith”, so unlike several other local ordinances that have been passed in Cincinnati and Columbus this year, this is not a direct challenge to the state’s firearm preemption law. Still, I’m not convinced that this local statute is going to do any good, because I highly doubt that the issue is really that the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office doesn’t have the time to pursue cases.
If that’s actually what’s taking place, then Keating should have been able to cite the number of arrests made by Cincinnati police for failing to report; cases that the prosecutor’s office is declining to take on given their finite resources. But Keating didn’t bring up any arrests on those charges, which makes me believe that this either isn’t much of a priority for local police or that it’s difficult for police to law enforcement to prove that the gun owner knew their gun had gone missing and failed to report its loss.
As Keating admits, the state statute specifically says that knowingly failing to report to law enforcement the loss or theft of a firearm is a crime, but proving that someone knew their gun had gone missing days or weeks beforehand is a tough thing to do. Allowing the city attorney’s office to start handling these cases doesn’t change a thing about the evidentiary issues involved here, and making arrests and prosecution of these cases a high priority means that police are going to be spending an awful lot of time investigating a low-level misdemeanor offense when they could be pursuing violent felony cases… and that could end up undoing the progress that Cincinnati is making in combatting violent crime.
That’s a worst-case scenario, to be sure. It’s far more likely that this new local ordinance will be enforced about as frequently going forward as the state statute is right now; which is to say, not often at all. The city council may have done something this week, but it looks to me like their vote was aimed more at good public relations than improving public safety.