Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery and the Justice Department worked out a deal on Dec. 18 to settle a dispute over checking the criminal histories of handgun buyers, according to Katherine Rizzo of Associated Press
The quarrel was resolved by enlisting the help of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department in Columbus, which will be paid to perform Brady Act checks throughout the state.
Montgomery had made the background checks voluntary after the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not require states to do the reviews. With the agreement, only Arkansas is refusing to do the background checks on the state level.
The Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the part of the Brady Act—with its five-day waiting period for handgun purchases—that requires local police to actually conduct the checks.
In addition to Arkansas, some 100 local jurisdictions, mostly with populations of 10,000 or less, have refused to voluntarily conduct the checks.
Under the new arrangement in Ohio, the state will still check for criminal histories of handgun buyers who sign a form permitting it, and Franklin County will check on people statewide who refuse to sign the voluntary waiver. As an incentive, those who sign the waiver and clear the background check may pick up their guns in 48 hours, rather than having to wait five days.
The county will be paid $5 per background check, according to Mark Weaver, an assistant state attorney general.
“Our two-day check will continue to cover the majority of handgun purchasers who agree to a background check, while this federal-state-local cooperative agreement will check the backgrounds of the remaining 5 to 10%,” Montgomery said.
Attorney General Janet Reno said in a statement the agreement with Ohio “recognizes that background checks are an important part of effective law enforcement. Ohio’s 100% background check coverage will protect public safety and assist our efforts to curb violent crime.”
Justice Department officials still are talking with Arkansas officials to encourage them to agree to voluntarily make the checks, Deputy US Attorney General Eric Holder said.
The Justice Department claims that since the Brady Act was enacted in 1993, some 250,000 people have been denied permission to buy handguns. About 1,000 were in Ohio, a lower percentage than the US average.
The Columbus Dispatch noted the Franklin County Commissioners approved the pact with Sheriff Jim Karnes, now a deputy federal agent, by a 2-1 vote with Commissioner Arlene Shoemaker voting against it.
“They’ve really had to stretch the law to do this checking, which means lawsuits galore,” Shoemaker said.
She noted that Montgomery pledged to defend the county against any suits that are filed.
“I’m not against background checks,” Shoemaker said. “But the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Brady bill, and as a result we have a volunteer program in which 90% of handgun buyers are complying.”
Shoemaker said that defending such lawsuits would likely involve Prosecutor Ron O’Brien’s office, despite Montgomery’s assurance of help.
“The agreement puts the county in a litigious situation, when within a year, an ATF computer system that will handle the checks is supposed to be up,” she said. “I don’t think that’s the best use of county dollars.”
Further, she said this is a case of the state imposing its will. “We’re not talking about the criminal element. Criminals are always going to get their weapons off the street; they’re not going to go into a gun shop and fill out an ATF form. We’re not talking about John Q. Citizen,” Shoemaker said.
Sheriff Karnes said his office will have to check the background of about five handgun buyers a week. “It will take about an hour of our time; I won’t need to add to my staff,” he told the commissioners.
Karnes will have access to computerized federal criminal records.
If he finds a felon is trying to buy a gun, or denies having a criminal record on the purchase application, the information will be given to the state agency to pursue. It’s illegal for a criminal to buy a gun or give false information on the application.
Through mid-November, 51,822 Ohioans had applied to buy handguns and 3,550—or 6.8%—have refused to agree to a background check. Of those who agreed, the state denied 453 sales because the would-be buyers supposedly had criminal records.
When the program was halted, Montgomery complained that it was finding few felons anyway.
Anti-gun Democrat Richard Cordray, who plans to run against Montgomery, said the attorney general has been “willing to check the criminal backgrounds only of law-abiding citizens, but not of the convicted felons.”
Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin said, “We are pleased to report that, with this agreement, approximately 98% of the United States population now resides in a jurisdiction where law enforcement officials continue to perform background checks on prospective handgun purchasers.”
“This agreement should encourage other states and localities that terminated background checks last June to resume them,” stated Reno.