INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- The phone calls to Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton’s office began in June when parents reported a man was spotted walking around the municipal swimming pool at Bryan Park with a gun on his hip.
“A lot of people didn’t know who he was and a lot of people called me and said, ‘Whoa! Do with have guns at our pools? Can’t we stop that?’” Hamilton recalled. “The short answer is, no, we’re not allowed to stop that.”
Mayor Hamilton’s summer of gun questions continued on the 4th of July as his city’s annual freedom celebration featured not only a 21-gun salute to kick off the festivities but a pickup truck in the parade sponsored by the Panther Ridge Training Center that carried a man holding a M60 machine gun with a bandolier of bullets hanging down.
“And we got more phone calls from people saying, ‘Wait a minute…there’s a machine gun coming down our parade. Can’t you stop it?’” said the mayor, “and I can’t.”
That’s because of a 2011 Indiana law, endorsed by the National Rifle Association and passed by the General Assembly, that prohibits mayors and local councils from passing even minimal ordinances at the town and city level to restrict the display of firearms in public.
“I can’t pass a regulation, a law, anything to do in any way with guns ammunition or accessories,” said Hamilton, “and if I do try to do anything, I’m subject to triple attorneys’ fees, penalties, so we’re all prohibited from doing anything.”
About the only thing Hamilton could do was write an OpEd piece for the New York Times titled, “Pistols at the Pool, Machine Guns on Parade and Nothing We Can Do.”
“Our preemption law on the state level is so comprehensive that, with very few exceptions, little room exists for mayors for any local action at all,” said Dr. Jody Madeira of the IU Maurer School of Law. “When mayors go to the statehouse and lobby, their hands are tied, unfortunately, just like citizens’ hands.”
Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett is similarly frustrated as he watches the city he inherited last January steadily head for another record murder tally to potentially surpass last year’s total of 144 criminal homicides.
“After all as mayors we are held accountable and responsible for the gun violence in our cities,” said Hogsett, “and what Mayor Hamilton was saying was, ‘Please give us the flexibility, give us the ability, to respond in meaningful ways to varying degrees of violence.’”
Hogsett said he would be look forward to joining with other Indiana mayors such as Hamilton in approaching the General Assembly this fall to lobby for some moderation in the state’s gun ordinance restrictions.
“I would think if you could focus on the very most important thing I could do in conjunction with the rest of my mayoral colleagues throughout Indiana is go after these next elections in November, go to the new governor, go to the newly constituted general assembly, and ask for more local control over those issues.”
If that new governor is fellow Democrat John Gregg, Hogsett and Hamilton would find a staunch NRA member who told FOX59 News that he believes in “common sense” gun laws.
“Some common sense gun approaches are important,” said Hamilton, “and as a mayor my people want me to do something ahead of time, not just wait until something terrible happens to respond. The problem is in Indiana I’m not allowed to do anything about that ahead of time.
“We’re not against hunters, we’re not against firearms for self-protection, and reasonably controlled, we’re not against the Second Amendment. We are against being held hostage to this crazy radical idea that you can’t make modest and common sense controls over things that kill 30,000 people a year.”
Medeira said “common sense” gun restrictions are in the eye of the beholder.
“It's very hard precisely to define what ‘common sense’ means because there are some crazy situations that come up in law that place one person’s Right to Carry against another person’s right to be safe.
“If the state preemption law were to be made less restrictive, or lifted entirely, I think you would have mayors place additional limits on gun dealers in their jurisdictions that say, ‘If we’re going to have a gun show, we’re going to have all transactions take place through background checks, we’re going to have domestic violence laws in this area that apply not only to married couples as they do statewide but also to couples that are dating and dating violence,’ and that’s a loophole that can be closed.”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s call for stringent poll watching this November and invitation to gun owners to make their opposition to opponent Hillary Clinton well known raise the issue of whether firearms will be legally present outside of Indiana polling places this fall.
“That is not an environment that makes people feel comfortable,” said Medeira who suspects the question has not been thoroughly vetted by state election officials. “You’re going to get several calls to police when this happens and police may very well get to the scene and determine that their hands are tied and that they can’t do anything.”
It’s a restriction that stymies mayors and police from protecting their citizens while also protecting the Right to Bear Arms.
“I think if we are to have fundamental change in our state and in this city, our General Assembly needs to recognize that and the governor needs to support it,” said Hogsett, “whoever those people ultimately may be in November.”
Hamilton said local authorities need, “regular people speaking up to representatives and saying, ‘This is just crazy, do you really want people with guns walking around a swimming pool full of kids and parents laying around putting sunscreen on? Do you really want a machine gun with bullets attached riding down the middle of Main Street in a July Fourth parade?’”
Jerimiah Barthold, owner of Panther Ridge, the firearms training center that sponsored the pickup truck in the July 4th parade, told the Bloomington Herald Times that the guns on his “float” were loaded with blanks or “replica ammunition.”
Mayor Hamilton said parents and children along his city’s parade route didn’t know that.