By Lawrence Messina
A nearly unanimous West Virginia House of Delegates on Monday approved a measure that would repeal a handful of municipal gun control ordinances, affirming the Legislature’s supremacy over that area of law.
The bill and its 94-4 passage to the Senate with two absences also signals lawmaker support of Second Amendment rights amid a debate renewed by horrific mass shootings in Connecticut, Colorado and elsewhere.
The bill targets ordinances in Charleston, South Charleston, Dunbar and Martinsburg. Delegates Nancy Guthrie, Danny Wells and Meshea Poore, whose Kanawha County districts include Charleston, voted against the bill along with freshman Delegate Stephen Skinner of Jefferson County. All four are Democrats. Delegates Ron Fragale and Dan Poling were absent.
All four municipalities prohibit weapons on city-owned property. The repeal of those ordinances would leave state laws that bar firearms in schools, school buses, courthouses and the state Capitol grounds. Another existing state law allows people to ban firearms from property they own or lease — but Monday’s bill would require that statute to include city or county governments specifically for it to apply to their property. The bill also allows employers from barring or regulating the carrying of firearms by their workers while they’re on the job.
Charleston’s ordinances go further. They prohibit handgun purchases by people with pending criminal charges or who have voluntarily received mental health care. State law bars firearms for convicted felons, people targeted by domestic violence protective orders or anyone involuntarily committed to a mental health facility. Charleston also limits handgun purchases to one per month, and requires the buyer to wait 72 hours before receiving the weapon. That city requires gun dealers to keep records of every handgun sale and provide the police chief with a copy of a registration form filled out by the buyer.
“We remain opposed to the bill,” Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said in a statement. “This legislation is a lot more complicated than just the pre-emption of Charleston’s gun ordinance. This is a multi-page bill that seeks to do much more than that, and yet that was the only topic discussed on the floor.”
During the 25-minute debate, several lawmakers said the purchase ordinances wrongly burden law-abiding citizens.
“The Constitution does not say a person has a right to bear arms in 72 hours,” said Delegate Joshua Nelson, a Boone County Republican.
After Nelson compared Detroit’s strict gun laws to its high crime rate, Wells cited how Charleston’s purchase limits aimed to stop the practice of drug dealers from that city and others to exchange drugs for multiple handguns for resale back home. This practice can include so-called “straw” purchases, or people with sufficiently clean records who buy the weapons in the dealer’s place.
Invoking that practice, Poore urged colleagues to consider the statewide problem of substance abuse.
“When someone can get drugs in replacement for a cheap gun, start thinking about how that affects your children,” Poore said.
But Delegate Woody Ireland, a Ritchie County Republican, and others questioned the effectiveness of Charleston’s ordinances given their absence elsewhere in the state.
Delegate Mark Hunt, another Charleston-based Kanawha County Democrat, said the bill would help the 80,000-square-foot store opened last year by outdoor and sporting goods giant Cabela’s within city limits.
Supporting the bill, Hunt also noted that he similarly voted for a previous attempt to allow only uniform and statewide laws governing guns.
“There will be one law in West Virginia, whether you like it or not,” Hunt said. “It will be the law of this Legislature, of the people that elect you every two years and who every two years can throw you out.”
Monday’s bill is among more than 30 this session involving firearms. They largely embrace gun ownership rights, with several seeking to block any new attempts at gun control.