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How Easy Is It To Buy A Gun In Ohio? Depends Where You're Shopping

Weapons for sale at Mad River Armory and Range in Springfield.
Jason Reynolds
Weapons for sale at Mad River Armory and Range in Springfield.

Ohio lawmakers are considering a long-debated bill that would roll back concealed-carry gun permit and training regulations. Some states have already passed similar controversial laws, while others have gone in the opposite direction to tighten gun sale, permit and background-check rules.

Gun regulations across the country are a patchwork, and following the variations between state and federal laws can be confusing. It’s no different in Ohio.

The Basics On Background Checks

At the Mad River Armory and Range in Springfield, around a dozen people are taking in some target practice using a wide variety of firearms.

Mad River, which also serves as a gun store, has one wall lined with weapons. Owner Skip McGee stands in front a glass case full of handguns and explains the process for buying a gun.

It starts, he says, with matching the buyer to the right weapon. But purchasing a gun at a store in America requires the buyer to submit to a federal background check.

Under the law, background checks must come back in three business days, though McGee says buying a gun can take as little as 20 minutes.

“Which I think is fair,” he says. “I’ve only had one gun that went past-date in three years.”

There’s a catch, he says: If the federal system fails to process a background check within those three business days, the sale can still legally go through.

McGee recalls that loophole led to a memorable situation when one background check didn’t come back within three days at Mad River.

“The guy came in to pick the gun up. He’s standing here to get it. We’re back there getting it,” McGee says. That’s when the phone rang, he says. "It was FBI calling to say, nope – where’s the gun at?"

The sale stopped, but if that phone call had come just a little later, McGee says the gun could have ended up in the wrong hands.

The government will typically step in to stop a sale for a number of reasons. The federal background check form asks a host of questions, including whether the buyer has been convicted of certain crimes, has a restraining order against them, or has a history of drug addiction or mental illness.

Mad River Armory and Range owner Skip McGee says his main goal is to make sure customers walk away with a weapon that's right for them.
Credit Jason Reynolds / WYSO
Mad River Armory and Range owner Skip McGee says his main goal is to make sure customers walk away with a weapon that's right for them.

The rules for buying a gun from an online store are the same: A buyer still has to go through a background check. So McGee can’t legally ship a gun directly to a purchaser. Instead, he says he ships the weapon to a licensed firearms dealer located near the buyer for pickup.

Despite all the rules, it’s pretty easy to avoid a background check and still legally buy a gun. That’s because there are different rules, depending on whether a gun is sold by a licensed dealer or sold by a private citizen at a gun show, for example.

Other rules are similarly byzantine. Under federal law, a person must be 21 years old to buy a handgun from a licensed dealer, but only has to be 18 to buy a shotgun or rifle such as an AR-15. 

That’s just for buying from a licensed dealer. An unlicensed person can sell a handgun to anyone over 18 and sell a shotgun or rifle “to a person of any age.”

“I don’t do gun shows. There’s a lot of improper sales,” McGee says. “Well, not improper, because it is legal in the state of Ohio to sell a firearm to another citizen of Ohio as long as you know they don’t have any type of felony or aren’t prohibited by law from owning a firearm.”

That’s a critical distinction. Federally licensed dealers like McGee are required to run background checks on buyers, but a private citizen who rents a booth at a show doesn’t.

Many advocates say inconsistent background check rules are a problem. Toby Hoover, who founded the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence in the 1990s, says a lot people may be unaware of how easy it is to avoid a background check, be it at a gun show or on the street.

“They’re counting on background checks and the government to make sure that this is supposedly a good guy, so therefore he can have a gun,” Hoover says. “So, some of those dealers are at gun shows. But there’s also the guy right next to him with the table that says, you don’t need a background check here. So, if you are a person who knows you wouldn’t pass, guess which table you’re going to go to?”

Perhaps on the opposite end of the debate is Dean Rieck, the executive director of the Buckeye Firearms Association, a pro-gun group that wants private gun transactions to follow the pattern of any other online sale. 

“I have a mower that I want to get rid of, I’ll probably post that somewhere. If someone is interested, I’ll give them the mower. They’ll give me money. And that’s it,” Rieck says. “It’s the same with guns. The difference is that if you’re going to do this on a regular basis you’re considered a dealer and you have to have licensed.”

At what point does a person who is selling guns privately become a dealer? It's complicated.

“Well, there’s nothing in the law that says at X number of guns or over X number of weeks that that happens,” Rieck says.

Open Carry, Concealed Carry, Constitutional Carry

Buckeye Firearms supports measures to roll back concealed-carry laws. Right now, Ohioans who want to carry a concealed weapon have to take classes and be licensed, but that’s only if a person want to conceal a firearm.

Ohio is a so-called “open carry” state, which means people who can legally own a gun in Ohio are legally allowed to march down the street with that gun. They just can’t hide it.

“But if I pick my shirt and cover up that gun, now suddenly I must be dangerous, because I have to be licensed,” Rieck says. “I have to do a background check. I have to do training, and I have to go through all the hoops to put my shirt over that gun. That makes no sense.”

Rieck says that a “constitutional carry” policy, which would allow people to carry concealed weapons without classes or licensing, would be more sensible.

Hoover also thinks Ohio’s current open-carry and concealed-carry laws are illogical, but for different reasons.

“It’s not just a holstered gun,” Hoover says of open-carry laws in Ohio. “You can walk right down the street with an assault weapon.”

Hoover says she thinks Ohio would be wise to follow states where all gun owners are required to be licensed – not just people who want to conceal a weapon – and where weapons are registered.

“You know who owns what,” she says. “If there is a problem, you can step in and say, ‘We’re gonna hold you responsible not only for what you do, but that you don’t let somebody else get the gun.’”

The Middle Ground

Back at Springfield’s Mad River Armory and Range, McGee says he’s more concerned with people’s safety than pushing an agenda. Regardless of what direction Ohio laws ultimately go, he says he’d like to see more gun owners take safety classes.

He also thinks the best way to close the gun show loophole is to have licensed dealers facilitate gun show sales.

McGee says he knows the country is divided on gun issues, but he’s hopeful that people can work together to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people while still protecting critical Second Amendment rights.

“You can have a conversation over firearms and maintain some civility with each other, some respect,” McGee says. “Have some open dialogue. Learn what the concerns of the other people are without screaming over top of everyone.”

But McGee admits that sort of conversation would require listening, something perhaps all too rare in today’s gun debate.