By David Skolnick
An organization touting stronger gun-safety laws — including criminal background checks on all gun sales and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines — met with hesitation and opposition from an unlikely source.
That unlikely source was Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul J. Gains, who was asked by officials with the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, part of the national left-leaning States United to Prevent Gun Violence, to speak in support of its agenda on gun control Friday.
“I’m a gun owner, and I don’t oppose the ownership of an assault weapon” by law-abiding citizens, Gains said.
As for background checks, Gains said, “I’m not sure background checks can be done.”
The checks are “necessary,” he said, and how they would be conducted is up to Congress.
“I also realize that criminals intent on securing a firearm will do so regardless of the existence of a background check,” Gains said.
Background checks aren’t needed for private sales, purchases at gun shows or on the Internet, said Seth Bringman, spokesman for the coalition, which is lobbying to enact those checks into law.
Gains, a Democrat who’s served as county prosecutor since January 1997, was the victim of an organized- crime hit in December 1996. He was shot once and survived when a gunman’s weapon jammed.
Stricter gun laws have been at the forefront of a national conversation since the Dec. 14 tragedy at a school in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, has called for expanding criminal background checks and a ban on assault weapons, which were banned by Congress between 1994 and 2004.
The U.S. Senate will vote next week on a gun-violence bill that doesn’t include a ban on assault weapons. The National Rifle Association is a strong opponent against any weapons restrictions.
“We definitely feel gun violence is a big problem, and the president agrees,” said Nelson Devezin, a coalition organizer. “We’d like to push the president’s agenda on this.”
State Rep. Ronald V. Gerberry of Austintown, D-59th, spoke at Friday’s press conference, urging Congress to close the background-check loopholes and ban assault weapons.
“I wonder sometimes why anyone needs an assault weapon,” he said. “My neighbors don’t need assault weapons to hunt deer.”
Gerberry added: “I really respect the Second Amendment and believe law-abiding citizens have the right to keep and bear arms. I’m against gun violence in America. We have a serious problem.”
Gerberry agreed with Gains that changes to background checks are “extremely technical. There are some issues that need to be addressed. It’s a problem, but it’s not a reason to not attempt to do it.”
An email about Friday’s event said the two elected officials would be joined by community members, but except for Devezin, no one else was there. Also, organizers wanted Gains and Gerberry to single out U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican. Before speaking, Gains said he had no interest in talking about Portman.
But Gains called on the state Legislature to stiffen the penalties for those who commit crimes while in the possession of a firearm.
Currently, those convicted of possessing a gun while committing a crime can be eligible for probation, he said. The typical prison sentence for those found guilty of that crime is three years and five years if they’re in a vehicle, he said.
Gains wants to increase that penalty to a minimum of eight years in prison.
“Not one law-abiding NRA member or anyone else would object to” that proposal, he said.
Later, Gains said that increasing the penalty would make some people think twice about committing a crime.