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The Gun Lobby

Ohio Wants to Give Gun Owners More Civil Rights Protections Than Gay Workers

After repeatedly declining to shield LGBT workers from dismissal over sexual orientation, the state legislature will consider a bill that makes it unlawful to fire employees who store firearms in their cars on company property.

On early Friday morning, the Ohio legislature removed an amendment that would have made gun owners who wish to store their guns in cars a protected class under state job discrimination law. The House replaced it with language that would still prohibit employers from barring employees from storing guns in their vehicles on company property — just without the added civil rights protections.

For six years, Nickie Antonio has tried to convince her fellow Ohio legislators to support her effort to extend civil rights protections to LGBT workers, who under curr`ent state law can be fired or denied employment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But each of the bills she has introduced into Ohio’s House of Representatives has failed, defeated by Republicans who hold a commanding majority in the legislative body.

“Every time I introduced legislation, I was told we don’t need to add to the list of protected classes,” Antonio told The Trace on Thursday morning, shortly before she went into the House’s lame duck legislative session. Her bills, she said, “get a cursory hearing, a little bit of testimony, and then they die in committee.”

Her colleagues, apparently, have had a change of heart about the need to cover another group under Ohio’s workplace discrimination statute. The class that requires protecting: gun owners with concealed weapons licenses, who want to leave their weapons inside their cars while at work.

On Monday, after business hours, the Ohio House’s State Government Committee added an amendment to an existing bill that would make it illegal for an employer to fire gun owners who leave firearms in their vehicles parked on company property. On Tuesday morning, with little debate, the committee approved the measure and sent it to the floor for a vote. If approved, as expected, it will head to Republican Governor John Kasich’s desk.

Democrats in the State Government Committee were stunned by this “11th hour” addition, says Julia Wynn, legislative aide to Representative John Boccieri, the committee’s ranking member.

“We only found out about it the morning of committee,” Wynn says.

The National Rifle Association testified in favor of the bill, as did the Buckeye Firearms Association, a local Ohio gun advocacy organization. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce was the only group that testified against the measure, arguing that businesses should have the right to control what happens on their property.

No one raised questions about the public safety implications of this amendment, Wynn says. “That would have come up if we’d had at least 24 hours to hear about the amendment before committee,” she adds.

It has been a busy week for pro-gun legislation in Ohio. On Wednesday, the Senate approved a bill that would permit concealed carriers to bring their weapons onto college campuses whose trustees approve the practice. The bill also lowers the penalties for people who bring their guns to particular campuses that ban them.

Law enforcement officials and public safety experts have repeatedly admonished gun owners who leave their weapons in vehicles, warning that doing so exposes them to a high risk of theft. There is no central database of gun theft information, but an investigation by The Trace published in September found that the number of guns stolen out of parked cars is rising in many cities.

In Atlanta, for example, police said they received 857 reports of stolen guns from vehicles in 2015, a 55 percent surge over the year before.

Georgia is among the at least 22 states that have adopted legislation that requires employers to allow their workers to leave their firearms in their vehicles while on the job. But the proposed Ohio legislation would be the only law that not only prohibits employers from making their own rules preventing concealed carriers from leaving guns in cars parked on company property, but creates a new civil right for those gun owners who choose to do so.

Stolen guns supply the criminal market. Firearms stolen out of cars have been linked to violent crimes including murder.

Public records obtained by The Trace show that Cincinnati police received reports of 88 guns stolen from vehicles in 2015, a fourfold increase from 2007. (Many stolen guns are never reported to police).

Neither Republican committee chair Ron Maag nor vice-chair Steve Hambley — the legislators who introduced the amendment — responded to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police declined to comment on the amendment’s public safety implications, saying the organization does not discuss legislation.

Sean Maloney, legislative director for the Buckeye Firearms Association, says he knew this amendment would be added to SB 199 “for weeks” ahead of time. Maloney tells The Trace he worked with the sponsor of the original Senate bill for more than two years, and was prepared enough to send one of his staffers to testify in favor of this employment discrimination amendment this week. “There was nothing sneaky or secretive about this,” he says.

The amendment is needed so “I can at least carry to and from my place of employment, and secure my firearm in my car,” Maloney explains.

He dismisses concerns that once the law is passed, criminals could more easily steal the weapons from legal gun owners who feel encouraged to leave them in cars. “If someone is going to commit the criminal act of breaking into a car, and the additional criminal act of stealing a firearm, how is that the owner’s fault?” he asks. “I don’t feel like my rights and ability to defend my life should be restricted because of the actions of a criminal.”

He adds that, “If there’s more gun theft, that’s probably just because there are more guns” in America than ever before.

On Thursday, Antonio and other Ohio Democrats scrambled to add their own amendments to the bill as the floor vote neared. “I’m totally outraged,” Antonio said, adding that she is going to again try to add her perennially defeated gay workers’ rights legislation as an amendment to the bill. There is no federal or state law prohibiting discrimination against workers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. “If we can protect people who leave their guns in their cars, we can protect the LGBT community,” she said.

Antonio said she assumes whatever happens to her effort, the legislation granting gun owners workplace protection will move to the governor’s mansion. She’s probably right: Both chambers in the Ohio legislature are controlled by Republicans. Of 132 lawmakers, the NRA has given 91 an A- grade or better.

Kasich hasn’t yet indicated what he will do, but gun-rights supporters have reason to be confident. Since taking office, he has not vetoed a single pro-gun bill passed by the legislature.

[Photo: Shutterstock]