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Commentary: Nan Whaley Wants Action On Gun Control. Here's How She's Making It Happen

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley speaks to members of the media Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, outside Ned Peppers bar in the Oregon District following a mass shooting nearby on Aug. 4.
John Minchillo
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley speaks to members of the media Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, outside Ned Peppers bar in the Oregon District following a mass shooting nearby on Aug. 4.

The last thing that Nan Whaley, the Democratic mayor of Dayton, wants to hear in the wake of the tragedy that rocked her city on the early morning of Aug. 4 is the usual partisan bickering and excuses by politicians who are in the pocket of special interests.

She doesn't want to hear it.

"I am not going to stop until I get this legislature in Columbus to do the right thing and take action,'' Whaley told WVXU on Monday. "This ends now. This ends here."

The 43-year-old two-term mayor saw what the results of doing nothing could be the night the lifeless bodies of nine of her fellow citizens – guilty of nothing more than going out to the Oregon District for a night of fun – lay in the middle of E. Fifth Street, along with those of dozens more who were wounded.

They were shot down in a matter of seconds by a disturbed young man from the Dayton suburb of Bellbrook, carrying an incredibly powerful weapon with two drums of .223 caliber bullets. And, thanks to a lightning-fast response by police, he was shot and killed.

Had the police not acted so quickly, Whaley said there could well have been "hundreds'' of victims.

Before Aug. 4 – the day Dayton, Ohio, joined the ranks of the more than 250 U.S. cities that have suffered the trauma of mass shootings in this year alone – Nan Whaley had never met the Republican governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, a 72-year-old career politician of another generation, old enough to be her father.

Since the Aug. 4 shooting, Whaley has kept a list of of the calls she's received from mayors of cities that also experienced mass shootings.
Credit Courtesy of Nan Whaley
Since the Aug. 4 shooting, Whaley has kept a list of of the calls she's received from mayors of cities that also experienced mass shootings.

"Since Aug. 4., I've seen the governor or talked to him probably 10 times,'' Whaley said. "I just got off the phone with him this morning. He and I will be doing an event on Thursday with the ministers here."

"We've gotten to know each other,'' she said. "I think we understand each other. We don't agree on everything. But he wants the legislature to act on real gun control legislation. And I will help him every way I can."

It is ironic in that in 2017, she was one of a pack of Democratic candidates running for the gubernatorial nomination in 2018. In January 2018, she dropped out of the governor's race and endorsed Richard Cordray, the eventual nominee who was defeated by DeWine.

DeWine showed up in Dayton later in the day of Aug. 4 to attend a vigil in a park near the Oregon District. It was also the 29th anniversary of the day he and his wife Fran lost their daughter Becky in an auto accident.

"He really had empathy for the families of those who had lost loved ones,'' Whaley said.

Whaley was at his side when the crowd began chanting Do something! Do something!Soon, the governor could not be heard over the din.

"He got the message,'' Whaley said. "He understood how they felt."

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine at vigil following shooting in Dayton
Credit John Minchillo / AP
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine reacts as people in the crowd repeatedly shout "Do something!" during his speech at a vigil following the deadly mass shooting in Dayton.

Two days later, DeWine proposed a package of gun reforms that included a "red flag law" to allow the courts to remove guns from people determined to be an "imminent risk" to themselves or others. He has also proposed more extensive background checks – anathema to the gun lobbyists and the legislators who follow their lead.

"Look, I don't agree with everything the governor has proposed; I would go farther than he would,'' Whaley said. "I'd like to see a ban on assault rifles, period. But this legislation would be progress. And I'll take progress for now. It's a battle that will keep on going.

"What these legislators who are in the pocket of the NRA don't understand is that, if they don't act, there are people out there who are going to put expanded background checks on the statewide ballot, and you can bet it would pass,'' Whaley said.

"Either pass something meaningful and thoughtful or we will get it on the ballot," she added. "They can either do it themselves or have it done for them. And if it ends up on the ballot, I will work around the clock to make sure it passes."

Whaley and her close friend, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley – who is no stranger to mad men with guns – are organizing a lobbying trip to Columbus for Sept. 19, where they will split up and hold meetings with individual members of the Ohio General Assembly.

The governor has been encouraging the mayors to get involved.

"This governor has been very decent to the mayors of Ohio,'' Whaley said. "But, of course, his predecessor (Republican John Kasich) set the bar pretty low."

For Whaley and her city, 2019 has so far been a hard, hard year. Perhaps the hardest since the Great Flood of 1913.

It began in May, when nine members of a group affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan showed up on Courthouse Square downtown. Nobody was sure how many Klansmen would show up – dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? As it turned out, it was a single-digit turnout.

About 500 counter-protestors, some of them obviously heavily armed, showed up nearby. There was no confrontation and the nine Klansman headed for the Indiana border quickly, but the city was shaken by the experience.

Two days later, on Memorial Day, 15 tornadoes ripped through Dayton and its suburbs. No one was killed, but the property damage was extensive and is still being dealt with.

"Tornadoes aren't supposed to be going through cities,'' Whaley said. "But there we were, right in the middle of it."

Whaley wants the people of her city to confront any mental health problems the shootings and the rest of Dayton's woes have caused.

She herself had a therapy session, after which she tweeted, "I have a counselor who I just went to and talked to about how hard this week has been. If you need someone to talk to – do it."

Whaley told WVXU that she was recently talking with U.S. Senior Judge Walter H. Rice of the Southern District of Ohio – an icon in Dayton's legal community – about how Daytonians were handling the tragedy.

"The judge said he thinks the city has been more together than it has ever been,'' Whaley said. "I agree. People are overwhelmingly positive. People are helping each other cope. It takes your breath away to watch it.

"I think, for me, I have to see some action come from all of this,'' Whaley said. "I don't want Dayton to become just another city that this has happened to and people forget all about it. I owe it to the victims and their families to keep fighting for change."

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Politically Speaking" here. 

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Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.