Updated Fri, Sep 30, 2011 12:33 pm
Few people sitting in a bar, sipping cocktails and chatting with friends think about whether the person next to them is packing heat.
But starting today, they might, thanks to a new state law.
The law, which breezed through the Ohio House and Senate and was signed by Gov. John Kasich in June, allows patrons who have concealed-carry permits to bring guns into bars, restaurants, stadiums and other places that serve beer, wine and liquor, adding Ohio to the list of 44 states that have similar laws.
The catch: They can’t drink alcohol.
If they do, they can be charged with a fifth-degree felony, which carries a penalty of up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine.
Scott Heimlich, owner of Barcelona restaurant in German Village and vice president of the Central Ohio Restaurant Association, is concerned the new law will be difficult to enforce.
“The law says they can’t consume alcohol, but will that person be honest and play by the rules and not have a drop of alcohol when they have a gun on them?” Heimlich said.
Locations that serve alcohol can post a sign barring guns on the premises, which Heimlich said he plans to do.
“Alcohol and guns do not mix in any type of setting,” Heimlich said. “By inviting them into a restaurant, you’re opening yourself up to issues.”
Rep. Danny Bubp, R-West Union, said this legislation is to protect people who already obey the law.
“You were going to find people with guns (in these places) before, but illegally,” Bubp said. “ We’re now leveling the playing field and allowing those people who have gone through the training to be able to carry so long as they aren’t drinking.”
Bubp, who has a concealed-carry permit, said people who are trained will be responsible.
“If I want to drink a Bud Light, I’m not going to carry my weapon,” he said. “If I want to protect my family, I’ll drink a Coke.”
A person must complete no less than 12 hours of training including two hours on a firing range, pass a background check and pay several fees to obtain an Ohio concealed-carry permit.
In 2010, the state issued or renewed a total of 61,000 concealed-carry licenses, up from 56,691 in 2009, according to Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office.
But Toby Hoover, executive director of the Ohio Coalition against Gun Violence, said some legislators are putting too much trust in people. Establishments aren’t required to be responsible for the behavior of those with concealed-carry permits, “so we have to trust” those patrons, Hoover said.
“But some of these patrons, I wouldn’t put them in a category of who I ought to trust,” Hoover said. “It’s just sort of bizarre.”
She added that putting guns in places where there is drinking or families is not a good idea.
“Most places I’ve talked to don’t want guns,” she said.
And there is a concern of increased violence, said Jay McDonald, president of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police.
“We oppose guns in bars, but it’s the law now and we hope that our prediction of increased violence doesn’t come to pass,” McDonald said.
He also is worried about enforcing the no-drinking stipulation.
“We’ll have to rely on the community, if they see people drinking,” he said. “The problem is the weapon is concealed so there’s no way to know until something bad happens.”
Despite these concerns, Linda Walker, central Ohio chairwoman for the Buckeye Firearms Association, said violence won’t increase.
“People think gun violence is going to go up, there’s going to be blood flowing in the streets, or people are going to be shooting people because they got angry with someone,” Walker said.
“We went through this same thing when conceal-carry went into law in 2004. After people got used to it, they saw nothing was going to change.”
Some Columbus-area restaurant owners are opposed to the law because alcohol changes people’s moods.
“Alcohol is a depressant and can be mood-altering,” said Elizabeth Lessner, owner of five local bars and restaurants. “We’ve seen people get agitated, which can cause aggression. We see so many bar fights — adding a gun to it is going to make everything worse.”
That’s why Lessner plans to post the “No guns allowed” sign at every one of her locations.
“I’ve never seen a case that warranted the use of a gun in the bar and we, in this city, are fortunate enough to have a really great police force that will be there in seconds,” she said. “We want to look to them for protection.”
But Byron Rosenthal, owner of Hog Heaven in Dover, Ohio, said he will allow guns in his restaurant because it is the law.
“It’s the carriers’ responsibility,” Rosenthal said. “In 10 years, we’ve never had an incident. People are already coming in with guns illegally, so it’s just up to the individual carrying it.”
Alex Stuckey is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau.