In March, Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) signed House Bill 79, which allows emergency medical technicians (EMTs) or paramedics in tactical units to carry firearms. The bill’s primary sponsors were Ohio Reps. Wes Retherford and Christina Hagan, both of whom are Republican. In effect since June, the law makes it possible for an EMT or paramedic to carry a weapon on the job following predetermined firearm training, but questions remain as to the safety and reasoning behind arming EMTs.
The law allows individual tactical medical professionals to decide if they wish to attend a “peace officer” academy, alongside undercover drug agents, deputy sheriffs, and more. The academy would offer a number of courses for EMTs, including crisis intervention firearm training, and would be financed through gifts or grants earned by the General Assembly for the Peace Officer Commission. In an interview with Rewire.News, Rep. Retherford noted he would expect the grant money used to fund the proposed academy to be spent with “the normal level of transparency associated with any other grant.”
Rep. Retherford told Rewire.News that medical professionals in District 51 in Butler County, Ohio, asked him to pursue House Bill 79. Rep. Retherford maintains the stance that SWAT EMTs, who are often employed by fire departments, “can very much find themselves in harm’s way” while working alongside SWAT team members in situations such as apprehending an active shooter. Receiving specialized training and certification, these EMTs provide medical support while attached to a law enforcement agency.
Lt. Kris Prosser of the Colerain Township Fire Department said that EMTs on SWAT teams do not wish to play police officers, but the possibility of being harmed while working makes him hope that a future bill will allow all EMTs or paramedics to have the choice to carry firearms while on regular duty.
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Rep. Retherford said “House Bill 79 would allow the opportunity for [tactical medical professionals] to prove [to] themselves whether or not this is a good idea. I think over time, you’re going to see more and more departments successfully utilizing this program. I could very well see them coming back and say, ‘Hey, you know what, we’re doing so well under this program. Let’s make it a program for all paramedics and EMTs.’”
In the past few years, Texas and Kansas lawmakers have passed bills that allow EMTs to carry concealed firearms while on duty. In Ohio, both Representatives Retherford and Hagan have political records of strongly supporting gun rights. Rep. Retherford has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the past, attending a Friends of NRA event earlier this year. He also worked on a 2016 law that authorizes concealed carry at universities and day care facilities if they allow it, and on private aircraft.
Rep. Hagan posted a video of herself firing an AR-15 while announcing the NRA’s endorsement of her current congressional campaign. In October 2017, Hagan said: “Republicans and Democrats agree, with full committee support and overwhelming support on the floor, that House Bill 79 helps in the advancement of extending second amendment rights to tactical medical professionals, TEMS, while on duty in dangerous situations.”
Rep. Hagan’s brother, Joe Hagan Jr., serves as a firefighter EMT for the Columbus Division of Fire.
Supporters cite the rise in mass shootings in the United States as a reason why concealed firearms for emergency medical services (EMS) professionals may be necessary. In 2013, a Georgian man held five firefighters hostage after luring them into his home by faking a heart attack. An Arkansas firefighter was shot and killed while responding to a call about someone having a seizure in 2016. In 2017, in New York City, an EMT was killed by a man who ran her over with her own ambulance.
But EMTs in the state of Ohio take issue with the justifications given for House Bill 79 and worry about a potential future where all EMTs or paramedics are allowed to carry concealed firearms while on duty. Speaking with Rewire.News, Alexander Becker, an EMT for a private company in Ohio, said: “It’s my job to make sure that the patient gets out of that scenario in the best possible way, and sometimes that can be hard enough as is. I really wouldn’t be throwing firearms into [the situation].”
Becker acknowledged the sense of security that tactical medical professionals may feel by having the option of carrying a firearm while on duty, but noted there should be a line drawn between emergency medical services and the job of the police. He went on to say, “I’ve walked into a residence before and have had unsafe feelings. Nothing happened, but [EMTs] are not trained to read a situation like that. I don’t think it would be a good idea to give people, without that skill, firearms because, in my opinion, that’s how you’re gonna end up with more people dead.”
According to Rep. Retherford, “If [EMTs] have to protect their own [life] to save lives, then that’s what they must do, but most of these guys aren’t looking to arrest people or shoot bad guys. They just want the ability to defend themselves and the people they’re in charge of taking care of.”
EMT Becker worried that racial or social biases could affect how firearms are used by medical professionals, similar to how these biases affect police officers on a regular basis. “There are enough issues with way too many people being shot [by police] for no reason,” Becker said. “There is a lot more training that needs to go into the situation for someone to be able to read it, and know whether or not they should legitimately be using that weapon. That’s for the most part what police are supposed to do—and we’re not.”