Background checks, ID cards slow weapon sales, close shops; Toledo gun-control laws prompt praise, criticism

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A9

Ned Plummer knows the meaning of a close call.

The owner of the Trilby Sport Shop on Secor Road was in the process of selling a handgun to a woman earlier this month. All the paperwork was in place; she had gone through a battery of background checks, with nothing untoward to be found. City and state government officials had signed off on the transfer, and all that was left was a day’s wait before the gun could be handed over.

“Then I got a call from [the Lucas County adult protective services unit]. They told me she was ‘mentally defective,'” he remembered. “They told me not to give her the gun because she might do something.”

Fewer than 24 hours before the weapon would be in her hands, the system had worked, even though a mentally unstable woman had somehow made her way through an intense investigation unnoticed.

Proponents of Toledo’s tight gun-control laws say that’s why background checks are so important – they keep firearms out of dangerous hands, saving lives and stopping injury. But gun advocates say they needlessly duplicate federal laws and hassle even the most upright of citizens – and are at least partly to blame for shutting down Toledo’s gun shops.

Mr. Plummer knows about that too. With the closing of Tom’s Guns and Shooting Supplies on Nov. 29, he now owns the only store left in the city limits that exists mostly to sell guns. (Some Toledo pawn shops and department stores sell guns on the side, and about a dozen people sell handguns out of their homes with a city license.)

The centerpiece of Toledo’s gun law is the Toledo Handgun Owner’s Identification Card, required for all owners, purchasers, and users of handguns in the city.

The idea of an ID card was introduced, without much fanfare, through a council bill proposed in early 1968 by first-term Councilman Gene Cook, whose 30-year stint on council ends this week. Supportive council members, fearing the bill didn’t have enough support to pass, kept it hidden in committees for months.

But two prominent killings that year – Martin Luther King, Jr. in April with a high-powered rifle and Robert Kennedy in June, victim of a cheap handgun of the sort the bill targeted – changed the public’s mood for gun control.

And at the same time, officials outside Toledo began singling out the city as a gun problem for the entire region. In congressional debates over gun control, Toledo was singled out as the “largest gun outlet in the Midwest.” Officials in Detroit complained constantly about the flow of cheap handguns across the Michigan border from Toledo.

That was enough to change councilmen’s minds. On Aug. 12, the bill passed 8-0.

“This will stop dealers from selling handguns to kids and to any numbskull that walks in off the streets,” Police Chief Anthony Bosch said at the time.

The system installed was this: To get a handgun, a Toledoan has to apply for a handgun ID card at the Treasury Department downtown, now at One Government Center. He must fill out a one-page form, be photographed, and submit to a background check by the Toledo police records division.

A sergeant checks national and local records for felony convictions or any of the other things that can make a gun purchase illegal in the city. If the police find nothing, the sergeant gives Treasury officials the green light to issue the ID card, which allows the person to buy, own, or use handguns for the next three years. About 2 per cent get rejected.

The whole process takes an average of two to three weeks, city officials say. That’s an underestimate, according to Mr. Plummer. “I can’t remember the last time a card came in under 14 days,” he said.

That time period can be delayed when large numbers of Toledoans buy guns, usually following a high-profile crime, officials said.

One former Toledo gun dealer who asked not to be identified said he thought the law was a good one.

“It seemed very fair, and a good idea,” said the man, who retired and closed his shop two years ago.

But it made the business of selling guns a tough one in the city limits. Customers coming from out of town have to spend weeks getting the license, when they could buy a firearm in another city without delay. Toledo residents looking for a gun were legally required to get an ID card no matter where they bought their weapon – but vendors outside the city couldn’t be required to ask for the card.

“Any dealer in the area should know to require the IDs,” said Scott Searle, a Toledo finance department official who handles ID applications. “But there’s no way to enforce it.”

City gun shop owners began to worry about their futures.

“Some say sales have dropped off so drastically since the law was enacted,” a Sept. 29, 1968, Blade article said, “that they may be forced to close shop.”

Mr. Plummer can count off the shops that went out of business or left town after the bill passed – Edwards’s downtown, Kowalka’s Gun Store on Tracy Road, Lickendorf’s on Stickney Avenue.

But there were still plenty of places to buy guns in Toledo, perhaps a dozen, gun owners remember.

But that was before 1994. That year, after years of lobbying by former Reagan press secretary James Brady, who suffered brain damage in the 1981 Reagan assassination attempt, Congress finally put into force the Brady Act, which mandated federal criminal background checks for anyone trying to buy a handgun. (That stipulation was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, but a deal announced earlier this month by Ohio attorney general Betty Montgomery keeps the system effectively in place, with state officials making most of the checks in place of federal agents.)

The check is made through the National Crime Information Center, a national database with data from all of Ohio’s 88 counties. With that check comes another delay, ranging from two to five days, more if there are serious questions about a buyer’s background.

So, starting three years ago, a Toledo handgun buyer had to go through two background checks, covering fundamentally the same ground and delaying a gun’s transfer by four or more weeks.

“Our check is essentially the same one the Brady does,” said Sgt. Louis Beringer, who does the background research for Toledo police.

“It just doesn’t make sense to do it twice,” Mr. Plummer said.

The procedure increased the incentive of gun buyers to evade the system, by buying outside the city limits or buying at gun shows, where rule enforcement can be more lax. It also made it even more difficult to run a successful gun shop in Toledo.

“We sell maybe a few dozen handguns a year,” Mr. Plummer said of his shop. “We go some months without selling any.”

Meanwhile, Cleland’s Outdoor World, west of the city line in Monclova Township, sells almost one thousand handguns a year.

“We don’t really have any competition from Toledo,” said manager Matt Cleland, who said about half of his business comes from residents of the city.

Mr. Plummer said he believes eliminating the Toledo background check in favor of the Brady check would help his business.

“I might have the guy down the block coming here to buy a handgun instead of driving out of town,” he said.

Backers of the Toledo law, however, say it provides another layer of defense against criminals trying to buy guns. Toledo does a background check every three years, when applicants seek a renewal; Brady applies only at the moment of purchase. And because Toledo law bans the possession of a handgun by those with certain criminal backgrounds – not just the purchase, as Brady does – Toledo police can order handguns seized after a person commits a crime. Federal law can’t.

“We can get those guns away from the felons after they commit the crime,” Sergeant Beringer said.

The city check also looks for two violations the Brady check does not. City law prohibits handgun sales to anyone with multiple disorderly conduct convictions related to alcohol or drug use in the last year. It also disallows sales to people with more than one misdemeanor conviction involving violence or the threat of violence in the last year.

Ohio’s checks are based on Brady Act requirements, and the act does not require authorities to search for those offenses, Ohio deputy attorney general Mark Weaver said.

In the last 12 months, Toledo has issued about 580 new ID cards and renewed about 1,200 – about average numbers for recent years, officials said. Since the cards expire in three years, that means about 5,500 Toledo residents can legally own or use a handgun. Some feel that low number just proves that there are thousands of people flouting the law by buying outside the city or buying on the black market.

“There are a lot more people than that [5,500] who have handguns in this city,” Mr. Plummer said. In 1968, Toledo police estimated there were 100,000 handguns in the city.

In any event, officials admit it is difficult to make a foolproof background checking system, at any level.

“Very few criminals, after all, are willing to go through the official handgun process,” Mr. Weaver said. “They have other ways.”

Some of them – along with thousands of perfectly law-abiding citizens – find their firearms at gun shows, where vendors and individuals put their used guns on display and on sale.

As Mr. Plummer said of the woman county officials said was “mentally defective”: “There’s nothing stopping her from going to a gun show and buying there.”

Locally, most gun shows are sponsored by the Maumee Valley Gun Collectors. Their shows were once held in Toledo, but the ID card law chased the events – and their tax dollars – to the suburbs. Now, they’re held six times a year at the Lucas County Recreation Center in Maumee.

For someone looking for a hassle-free gun buy, a gun show makes sense. At the Rec Center, dealers aren’t legally required to check for a Toledo ID card. And individual gun owners vending their wares don’t even have to do a Brady Act background check.

“There are certainly a lot more gun shows now than there used to be,” said Ted Almay, superintendent of Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation.

Across Ohio, the number of people considering it worth their while to sell guns has dropped dramatically. In 1994, there were more than 10,000 federal firearms licensees in the state, Mr. Almay said. That number is fewer than 6,000 today.