INDIANAPOLIS – Don’t be surprised if you see somebody with a handgun at your local polling place this November.
A 2011 state law that barred local governments from enforcing their own gun restrictions also covers many public buildings where people go to vote.
Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson says the law is clear: Unless the polling place falls under the few exemptions in the law, legal gun owners have the right to openly bear their arms while they vote. “That matter has been settled,” Lawson said.
But it’s not quite been put to rest.
Last month, a Zionsville attorney who’s built a law practice as the unofficial enforcer of the 2011 law, filed a lawsuit on behalf of a northern Indiana man who was turned away from his polling place in a fire station during the May primary election after he refused to take off his holstered handgun.
Guy Relford thinks his client was a victim of ignorance of the 2011 law and predicts similar incidents may occur with the November election. “I routinely get calls from people who say their local officials and local law enforcement don’t know or understand the law,” Relford said. “But ignorance is no defense.”
The law in question, known as Indiana’s firearms pre-emption law, prevents local political subdivisions from having their own firearms ordinances. When it went into effect in July 2011, it also did away with local laws that prevented legal gun owners from carrying their weapons into public places like libraries, parks, city halls and fire stations. The law exempts courthouses and schools, where firearms may still be banned.
State Sen. Jim Tomes, a Republican from Wadesville who authored the law in his freshman year as a legislator, said it was intended for people like Relford’s client: Clay Edinger, a retired Marine and Iraq War veteran who is working on his masters degree in theology and studying to become a military chaplain. When Edinger went to vote, with his holstered handgun in plain view, he had a copy of the law with him, but was still turned away.
“(The law) was directed at people who have a license to carry a firearm, who’ve qualified for one, who’ve gone through the proper background checks with police,” Tomes said. “Some people imagined that we were going to have people shooting up libraries and parks and that just hasn’t happened.”
Tomes said Relford’s lawsuit has prompted questions about whether he thinks the pre-emption law should be amended to include polling places. His answer: “Absolutely not.”
While some gun rights advocates may encourage legal gun owners to test the law this fall, Tomes is not doing so and he cautions gun owners to be aware of the public perception of guns. “The media reports so many negative stories about guns and gun owners that people are living in fear,” Tomes said. “People are conditioned to react badly to the sight of guns.”
Tomes said the preemption law protects the rights of legal gun owners, but he doesn’t encourage licensed gun owners to openly show or display their legal firearms in public places. “The intent of the 2011 firearm preemption law was to provide a uniform policy for legal firearms carriers statewide, allowing them to legally carry their firearms in places they couldn’t before,” he said.
Tomes said his reasoning for not advising open displays is two-fold. First, he said, is that Indiana’s “concealed carry” law already allows legally licensed owners to have their firearms on hand in public places in case of an emergency. “Openly carrying a firearm in public venues works against the idea of having protection in the case of an emergency by most likely making any legal carrier a target of those who are illegally carrying firearms,” Tomes said.
The second reason echoes his concern about how the public perceives the guns. “(B)ecause people are not accustomed to seeing an openly carried firearm in public places, it’s common courtesy to keep them concealed as to not excite unnecessary fear,” Tomes said. “Most legal firearms carriers are responsible enough to extend this courtesy to fellow Hoosiers, carrying their firearms concealed as a demonstration of respect.”
Matt Groeller, president of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, said while his organization opposed the firearms pre-emption law when it was debated in the Statehouse, he thinks most communities complying.
Relford is working to make sure they do. He’s filed three lawsuits targeting local governments that he says have violated the law. One involves the City of Hammond, whose officials have told law enforcement not to enforce their local gun bans but have refused to take the local bans off their books. That lawsuit is in the state Court of Appeals. He’s also sued the city-owned zoo in Evansville, after police ordered a gun-carrying zoo visitor to leave the premises after fellow zoo visitors said they were frightened. That suit is pending.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org