TOLEDO, Ohio (CN) – Against the backdrop of a darkened high school auditorium, a local news anchor asked a question that hinted at the pitfalls for Ohio politicians facing calls for stricter gun controls after last month’s school massacre in Parkland, Florida.
The moment came about a third of the way through the first official debate Wednesday night for the four Democrats running for governor of Ohio. The four candidates were standing behind podiums each marked with one letter, spelling out O-H-I-O, in a cavernous auditorium in Bowsher High School in Toledo, a hardscrabble city in northwest Ohio.
By that point, former state attorney general and frontrunner Rich Cordray, former presidential candidate and ex-Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich, retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neil and relative newcomer and state senator Joe Schiavoni had touched on the issues of sexual harassment, the opioid epidemic, and fracking.
Then, Viviana Hurtado, a journalist with Toledo’s CBS affiliate WTOL-11, said gun control measures and a “backlash” against the National Rifle Association had swelled since the Florida shooting, before spinning her question in another direction.
“Locally the NRA is not a lobby, but members who volunteer with Boy Scout troops,” Hurtado said to O’Neill. “They are our neighbors. How will you reassure these Ohioans your position goes after the problem and not law-abiding citizens?”
The question implied that in the mind of Ohioan gun owners, any restrictions might erode their Second Amendment rights. But it also pointed to the balancing act that past Democratic candidates have pulled off in a state where concealed-carry laws allow Ohioans to take firearms into bars, restaurants and even university campuses.
Ohio Democrats also have a complicated relationship with the gun lobby, keeping one eye on gun owners who have pressured them to uphold gun rights.
This year feels different. It represents a year where Democrats are hoping to ride a wave of discontent with the rightward shift the country has taken with the election of President Donald Trump and turn several GOP statehouses blue.
Meanwhile, the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 students dead and another 16 injured has thrust gun control legislation into the national spotlight and could be a galvanizing issue for voters in this year’s election.
The debate Wednesday was a harried event, with gun control barely getting a look in, save for Hurtado’s question. Debate moderator Jerry Anderson whiplashed candidates into explaining policy positions on the opioid epidemic, legal marijuana, for-profit schools, right-to-work battles, and fracking in a matter of seconds.
Still, for Cordray’s opponents in the May 8 primary to choose the Democratic nominee for governor, it was a welcome opportunity to take the sheen off the frontrunner, the former Ohio attorney general and head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, by emphasizing his ties to special interests groups.
“You’ve got an ‘A’ rating from the NRA,” O’Neill said as he tried to knock Cordray off his perch.
Cordray has been a vocal Second Amendment advocate. During the campaign, video emerged of Cordray speaking at a pro-gun rally in Columbus in 2010. As the state’s attorney general, he was one of the few Democrats to boast an “A” rating from the NRA and his office went to court to prevent cities from enacting their gun reforms.
In the wake of Parkland, Cordray’s perspective has shifted. He says he supports more extensive background checks but has not called for an outright assault weapons ban.
On the debate stage Wednesday night, Cordray did not distance himself from the NRA and instead adopted a familiar position that could align him more closely with conservatives than the Democratic base.
“Everybody on the stage has recognized in the wake of the shootings at Parkland, we have to tighten our gun laws,” he said. “We have to tighten our gun laws and keep guns out of the hands of criminals, the mentally ill, domestic abusers and make sure that they are not able to wreak havoc.”
That position contrasted sharply with Kucinich’s approach. The former presidential hopeful called for a complete ban on assault rifles, including the popular AR-15, which suspected gunman Nikolas Cruz used in the Parkland massacre.
“Cleveland had an assault ban but that assault ban was overturned through the actions of Mr. Cordray, and that’s a big issue in this election. We must ban assault weapons,” Kucinich said, referring to his opponent’s time as attorney general.
“We need to do this for the children of Ohio. We need to do this to protect our public spaces,” he added during his closing statement.
O’Neil touted his Second Amendment credentials and called himself an “expert marksman.” The former state supreme court justice urged local law enforcement to keep a registry of AR-15s and require citizens to apply for a permit to use the military style weapon.
“My local chief of police told me he had no idea how many AR-15s there are in a small four thousand people. We need to register them, we have to regulate these. This has got to stop,” O’Neil said.
That put him to the right of outsider Schiavoni, a 38-year-old state senator and amateur boxer. He comes from a district that voted overwhelmingly for Trump, but outlined several policies on gun control and public safety.
“We need to shore up our schools first and invest in services in our schools, make sure we have the behavioral specialists, security at the doors. We need to make sure we close the gun show loopholes. [We need to have] mental health background checks and have a national conversation about an assault weapons ban,” Schiavoni said.
He went even further after Wednesday’s debate and told reporters he would support an assault weapons ban. Kucinich and O’Neil also spoke to reporters but Cordray did not come into the press room after the debate to take questions.
“Rich has never been funded by the NRA,” his spokesman Mike Gwin told the Columbus Dispatch. “He’s always made his decisions, not based on one interest group or another, but based on what he thinks is in the best interest of his constituents, the state and the country.”
The widening debate on gun control legislation has also ensnared Republicans.
Since he was elected in 2010, outgoing Ohio Governor John Kasich has signed over a dozen gun bills into law, including easing regulations on where Ohioans can carry concealed handguns. Day cares, state parking garages, bars, restaurants and universities are all fair game for handguns under state law.
In recent weeks, Kasich has taken a more moderate position, calling for gun reform and saying he supports “common sense” restrictions.
Gun-rights advocate Chris Dorr, director of the nonprofit Ohio Gun Owners, described Kasich as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and said he was concerned about the current political climate.
“Historically, a lot of these people say at election time that they’re going to be voting against gun control,” Dorr said in a phone interview Wednesday. “What we’re seeing right now is this shift amongst this Republican Party, especially at the leadership levels all the way down to our local legislative races.”
Comments by the frontrunner in the Republican race for governor suggest Dorr has good reason to be concerned.
As a moderate Republican congressman in Washington, D.C., Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine supported background checks at gun shows and, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, he has suggested enhancing background checks without changing any current laws.
DeWine is facing off in the May 8 GOP primary against Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor. Kasich can’t run again because he is term-limited.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Toby Hoover, founder of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, said she was skeptical of the Democratic candidates’ evolving positions. She said she would like to hear more from Cordray on background checks.
Hoover blamed Democrats’ past coziness with the NRA on redistricting, which she said made liberal politicians feel outnumbered and pressured them into listening to the gun lobby.
“In Ohio, we’re divided as far as rural areas and our big cities,” she said. “We have a lot of legislators from those [rural] areas that are catering to people who are really talking about hunting instead of talking about carrying a gun around in your pocket in Cleveland or Columbus, and that’s a huge difference.”
A Pew survey from July 2017 underscores the divide between rural and urban gun owners. The poll found that almost six in 10 rural Americans own a gun. Only 28 percent of adults who live in the suburbs said they are gun owners. In cities, 19 percent of adults own firearms, the survey found.
Eighty-two percent of gun owners in rural parts of the country said that the right to own a gun was essential to their person sense of freedom, compared to 59 percent of gun owners living in cities.
How much the issue of gun control will matter in this year’s general election in November remains to be seen.
Democrat Marc Dann, another former Ohio attorney general, says he now regrets embracing the NRA. He believes the public in Ohio is ready for gun control legislation but said that Cordray and other candidates “haven’t caught up yet.”
“It was very tempting to tell yourself the story that, ‘Well, the NRA’s right. This is about the constitutional rights of individual gun owners,'” Dann said in a phone interview. “The fact is you can respect the rights of individuals in this country to own guns for their own protection or for recreation and at the same time support reasonable regulations on those guns.”
Dann added that gun lobby would always feel more comfortable with a pro-gun Republican in the governor’s mansion than a pro-gun Democrat and suggested Cordray and the other Democratic candidates have nothing to lose by staking out an opposing position.
“Any advantage Rich Cordray might have from his pandering to the NRA over the past two decades, it goes out the window because he’s not going to get their endorsement anyway,” Dann said.
Instead, as activists push for more gun control, it might just be the wedge issue that increases turnout on the Democratic side.
“It can be a base-driving issue for the Democratic nominee, but if it’s somebody who doesn’t support reasonable steps like banning assault weapons, I don’t know that that will work for the Democrats,” Dann said.
Dorr, meanwhile, said the call for more gun control had more to do with the mainstream media and a “leftist agenda.”
He said Ohio gun owners still support “rational, reasonable laws” that improve public safety and that his group, Ohio Gun Owners, is still opposed to an assault weapons ban.
The state’s gun owners will be the “800-pound” gorilla in any district whose representatives waver on gun rights, he said.
“The only thing that has changed…is weak-kneed politicians who have abandoned the field, and now gun owners are going to be the ones who have to step up and send a very loud and clear message to their representatives and their senators, that if you cross that line you’ll be held accountable for it,” Dorr said.