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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: Ohio may be difficult for gun control advocates, but that won't stop their efforts

Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, poses for a photograph in Washington, Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
J. David Ake
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, poses for a photograph in Washington, Wednesday, April 26, 2017.

Ohio will go to the polls in next week's election with a chance to flip the script on gun control.

A chance to turn Ohio from a Wild, Wild West-like state where nearly anything goes when it comes to finding and using firearms to a state capable of adopting some common sense rules that may save lives.

They have a chance, but only a slim one. As deep as the gun lobby has its hooks into the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly, it is highly unlikely much will change in next Tuesday's election.

It's not that Ohioans don't want that. They do. In large numbers.

A recent poll of Ohio voters conducted by Baldwin Wallace University's Community Research Institute found majorities of all demographic groups, including conservatives and gun owners, support a number of steps often referred to as "common sense" gun restrictions. A whopping 85% favor expanding background checks for gun purchasers; 79% support raising the minimum age to buy an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21; and 75% approve of "red flag" laws that allow police to temporarily remove guns from owners deemed to pose a danger.

Those numbers make it very clear where the people of Ohio stand on gun control.

But, in recent years, the Republican super-majority in the Ohio General Assembly has passed one law after another to make guns more available — permitless concealed carry; "stand your ground" legislation, a bill which takes away the requirement to retreat in the face of possible attack; and a bill that allows teachers with minimal firearms training to carry weapons in schools.

And Mike DeWine, the Republican governor who is running for re-election with a double-digit lead in most of the polls, signed every one of them into law.

And how do they manage to pass legislation and sign into law bills which fly in the face of public opinion? One word: Gerrymandering.

For the past 30 years, Republicans have controlled the process of drawing state legislative and congressional district lines — and, in the process, defying the Ohio Supreme Court to get what they want.

Their rural, small town and suburban districts outnumber the districts in the state's large urban centers, giving them the veto-proof majority that gives the GOP a blank check to do what it wants, when it wants.

"There's not much about the gun laws in Ohio that really reflects the will of the people," said Shannon Watts, a mother of five who is the founder of Moms Demand Action, an advocacy group that has grown into one of the nation's largest gun control organizations in the country.

Watts has been fighting for stronger gun laws in statehouses from one end of the country to the other for the past decade.

With an army of three million volunteers, Moms Demand Action has had successes, but some states are tougher than others.

Ohio is one of the toughest of all.

Last week, she brought the crusade to the Buckeye State, with a legislature full of elected officials who rake in large amounts of money every year from gun lobby organizations.

Watts' activism began in December 2012 after a 20-year-old opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 children and six adults.

And, while there is still much work to be done, the organization has helped bring about legislative successes on gun control in states like Virginia, Colorado and Maryland.

"Ohio is not easy, but these issues of gun violence bring people of all backgrounds together," Watts said. "And Democrats are learning that they can run and win while advocating for restrictions on guns."

Last week, Watts came to Cincinnati and Columbus to launch a canvassing effort by Moms Demand Action volunteers who went out knocking on doors for pro-gun control candidates.

One of those candidates Watts was helping was Democratic incumbent Jessica Miranda of Forest Park, whose redrawn Ohio House district in north-central Hamilton County is considered a "toss-up." She has a rematch this year with former Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel.

Two years ago, Miranda defeated Monzel by 2,314 votes out of over 68,000 cast. But the district has become somewhat less friendly to Democrats since then.

Miranda, who was taught by her grandfather how to shoot rifles, is one of the staunchest supporters of gun restrictions in the Ohio House.

"I never use the word 'control' when talking about guns," Miranda said. "I talk about 'gun safety.' "

She said her own campaign's polling of 28th District voters showed that gun law reform ranked third, behind only the economy and abortion rights.

"I knew intuitively that it was a concern for people because I hear it all the time," Miranda said. "We all want to be able to put our kids on the school bus and know that they won't be mowed down by weapons of war at their school."

Watts, who supports Miranda's re-election, met with Moms Demand Action volunteers at the Mount Auburn campaign headquarters of Democratic congressional candidate Greg Landsman, a Cincinnati council member who is taking on incumbent Republican Steve Chabot in Ohio's 1st Congressional District.

Landsman, too, has the support of Moms Demand Action.

Chabot, who ranks second among members of Congress in campaign money from the National Rifle Association, surprised Democrats and Republicans alike when he was one of only 14 House Republicans to vote for the biggest overhaul of the country's gun safety laws in decades.

It was a compromise piece of legislation. Democratic leadership and the Biden administration wanted tougher provisions, including a ban on assault weapons, but that would never have passed with bipartisan support.

"It not only protected schools but it was additional background checks for younger people and the rest," Chabot said of the legislation in a recent debate with Landsman.

But, in the same debate, Chabot made it clear he is by no means anti-gun.

"We have an amendment to the constitution; it's not the First (Amendment), but it's the Second, and it is very important," Chabot said. "It says that people have a right to defend their own families in their own homes."

Chabot's opposition to universal background checks for gun purchases and an assault weapons ban shows "that he won't stand up to the gun lobby, while the guns still flood our streets," Landsman said.

Watts said that, whether at the congressional or the state level, gun safety advocates have to avoid getting bogged down in philosophical arguments with the Second Amendment crowd over issues such as "defunding the police" – one that Chabot and his allies are using on a daily basis against Landsman.

"We can't let these MAGA Republicans gaslight us," Watts said. "In the end, we have to make it known to voters that most police officers want the same thing we want — fewer guns on the streets.

"We represent the majority. They represent the minority. We can't let them seize the power."

Miranda agrees, but she said it will be long, hard slog to get any meaningful legislation through an Ohio General Assembly that is so heavily Republican.

"It's great to know about the success they have had in other states, but Ohio is different," Miranda said. "The only option available seems to be a petition initiative.

"That's incredibly expensive to do," Miranda said. "I have no idea who would have the resources to do that right now, but never say never. We can hope."

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.