Analysis: Guns, and Gov. DeWine's record on them, take center stage in Ohio's gubernatorial race
On Monday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine put the issue of gun violence front and center in his campaign for re-election.
That may not have been his intent in calling a press conference to talk about signing a bill making it possible for teachers to be armed in Ohio schools, on the same day permit-less concealed carry of firearms went into effect. But that is what happened.
For good or ill, Mike DeWine is going to have to deal with questions about his record on guns for the next five months leading up to the November election.
It is a record that will satisfy his conservative Republican base, but likely enrage Democratic voters in the state's urban areas and shake them out of their slumber long enough to make sure they vote this fall.
The subject of gun violence and what to do about it is probably the best issue Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Whaley has going for her.
It is an issue the former Dayton mayor is very passionate about. You would be too, if you had to do what Whaley did to bring her mourning city together in the wake of an August 2019 mass shooting in the city's Oregon entertainment district. A gunman killed nine people and wounded 26 others in just 32 seconds before Dayton police officers shot him dead.
You don't forget something like the vigil the people of Dayton held near the Oregon district the next day, where Whaley was joined by DeWine; and you watched as the governor's remarks were drowned out by people in the crowd chanting, Do something! Do something!
Whaley watched as DeWine returned to Dayton a few weeks later to unveil a package of gun reforms — a package he quickly abandoned once there was opposition from the Republican majority in the Ohio General Assembly and from the gun lobby, which wields enormous power in the Ohio Statehouse.
There is no question that Whaley is a decided underdog in this race. The only public poll, a Columbus Dispatch/Suffolk University Poll conducted May 22-24, showed DeWine with a 15 percentage point lead. Not surprising, given that DeWine has been running for one office or another in Ohio 15 times since 1976 — which happens to be the year Whaley was born.
So far, DeWine has signed a number of bills which have enraged those who believe strongly in gun control, including the Stand Your Ground legislation, which eliminates the requirement to retreat in the face of a violent threat. And, of course, the permit-less concealed carry law, which went into effect Monday and was opposed by the Ohio FOP, who were concerned people who had concealed weapons during traffic stops did not have to tell police officers that unless asked.
So, if you are Whaley, you hold a Zoom press conference a few hours after DeWine's event on signing the bill to allow teachers to pack heat and you surround yourself with people who are as outraged as you are about DeWine's record on guns.
Whaley's group included former Cincinnati police assistant chief Richard Biehl, who retired last year after 13 years as Dayton's police chief; Hamilton County Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey; and Dion Green, a survivor of the Oregon District massacre whose father was one of the nine people killed.
For his announcement and press conference, DeWine was flanked by his lieutenant governor, Jon Husted; and the two state legislators primarily responsible for the bill allowing the arming of school teachers — State Rep. Thomas Hall of Madison Township in Butler County; and State Sen. Frank Hoagland of Mingo Junction in eastern Ohio.
Over and over again, DeWine emphasized the voluntary nature of arming teachers, saying that it was up to each individual school system in Ohio whether or not to choose this option.
“This is a local choice, not mandated by the legislature nor by the government,” DeWine said. “Each school board will determine what is best for their students, their staff and their community.”
The prior law on arming teachers required 700 hours of training; and an Ohio Supreme Court decision last year affirmed that. That was totally useless — no one could do 700 hours of training — and the bill signed into law Monday requires 24 hours of training, with eight-hour refresher courses each year.
Given some of the answers DeWine gave at his Monday press conference, it wasn't clear at all the governor had thought out all of the possible consequences of turning teachers into some kind of gun-wielding militia.
Asked about the chance a teacher would accidentally shoot an innocent student, DeWine had a rather stilted response.
"In life we make choices and we don't always know what the outcome is going to be," DeWine said. "What this legislature has done, and I've done by signing, is giving schools an option based on their particular circumstances with the best decision they can make with the best information they have."
Speaking of choices, it will no doubt be the choice of the overwhelming majority of teachers in Ohio that they don't want to be turned into armed guards responsible for life or death decisions in their own classrooms.
Both of the major unions representing Ohio teachers — the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teachers — have opposed this legislation since it was introduced. It has only intensified now that it has passed the Republican-dominated legislature and has been signed into law by DeWine.
"Our students and educators need to be in safe environments where they can focus on teaching and learning, not on the threat of having unprepared, woefully undertrained people — regardless of their good intentions — making split-second decisions about whether to pull the trigger in a chaotic classroom full of innocent bystanders,” OEA President Scott DiMauro said in a written statement after DeWine signed the bill.
The ink from DeWine's signature was barely dry on the bill to potentially arm teachers when the school boards in Cincinnati and Columbus decided they would not allow their teachers to be armed. You can expect the other major city school districts in Ohio to follow their lead.
In fact, the only local boards of education likely to take up that option are rural districts where guns are plentiful and where law enforcement officers are not necessarily close by schools.
In other words, the governor is playing to his base.
So is Whaley.
In her press conference, Whaley lit into DeWine, saying that ever since abandoning his post-Oregon District plan, the governor has done nothing but make the problem worse.
"The politics got hard and Mike DeWine folded," Whaley said. "To him, nine lives were not worth the political risk."
Teachers in Ohio public schools, Whaley said, need to do 180 hours of training to renew their teaching licenses, but only 24 hours in order to pack a gun at school.
DeWine, Whaley said, "doesn’t actually give a s**t about whether or not you or your family is safe."
"He twists himself into a pretzel because he knows what he has done is wrong and makes our communities less safe,'' Whaley said.
It is the kind of red-hot rhetoric that would fire up a lot of voters who are fed up with gun violence — including a lot of independents and Republicans — in to going out to vote, even for an underdog candidate they know little about.
We're about to find out just how mad people are about gun violence in the schools.