Gun rights supporters, law enforcement face off at Capitol

Gun rights supporters and law enforcement officers struck an uneasy tension at the state Capitol Thursday, staying apart from one another as they argued on opposite sides of a bill that would allow anyone in West Virginia, age 18 and older, to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.


Clad in black T-shirts with an American flag and a silhouetted assault rifle on the back, members of the West Virginia Citizen’s Defense League filled the House of Delegates chamber and spoke of constitutional rights in a public hearing on a bill that would repeal the state’s concealed weapons permit requirement.


Looking on from above in the House balcony were dozens of uniformed law enforcement officers, mostly from the Charleston Police Department and the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department, at the Capitol to show their opposition to a repeal.


The arguments were not entirely good-natured.


“I’d like to thank all these law enforcement officers who have showed up in violation of state law, armed at the Capitol Complex, to speak against our rights,” said Keith Morgan, president of the Citizen’s Defense League.


There were no smiles in the balcony.


State law prohibits firearms on Capitol grounds, but does not apply to “a law-enforcement officer acting in his or her official capacity.”


Morgan misrepresented the scope of the proposed changes in the bill (SB347).


“There is one substantive change to the law in this bill, that is the removal of the $100 fee to conceal a firearm,” he said. “There’s no change in who can carry one, there’s no change in who’s prohibited, just one change and that’s the removal of the fee.”


He was arguing that federal law already requires a background check and prohibits certain people from purchasing or possessing a weapon, including convicted felons, domestic abusers and people with specific mental health issues.


But the concealed weapons permitting process has stricter requirements that would become moot if the bill passes.


Currently people who have a court-documented history of alcohol problems and people convicted of a violent misdemeanor in the past five years cannot carry a concealed weapon. Concealed weapons permits are also not available to people under 21, but under the proposed bill, anyone over 18 could carry one.


If the bill passes, permits would no longer be required, but the permitting process would remain in place, primarily for people who want reciprocity from other concealed carry states.


Two representatives of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence spoke against the bill, saying it would weaken protections for women.


Joyce Yedlosky, coordinator for the coalition, cited a report from the Violence Policy Center that says that for every woman who uses a handgun in self-defense against an intimate partner, 83 women are killed with a handgun by their intimate partner.


But Joanna Kirkpatrick, with the Citizen’s Defense League, said that the fees and other requirements to get a concealed weapons permit act as a social barrier for women and low-income people who want to carry a gun to protect themselves.


Steve Neddo, the president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, said that they view the permit requirement as a basic public safety issue. He said that currently officers dealing with people carrying concealed weapons know, at a minimum, that the person has taken a firearm training class and has passed a background check.


Without concealed weapons permits, Neddo said, officers would not know if a person they stop can legally carry a gun.


The bill would no longer require a gun safety class in order to carry a concealed weapon.


Keith Owen Campbell, the secretary of the Citizen’s Defense League, said the classes weren’t necessary because “anyone with a modicum of common sense is going to instruct themselves.”


Campbell said that law enforcement’s opposition to the bill was about money.


State law requires a $75 application fee for a concealed weapons permit, much of which goes to sheriff’s departments, with an additional fee charged by the State Police.


“This is a right we have,” Campbell said. “This is a right we shouldn’t have to pay for.”


Frank Hartman, a lobbyist for West Virginia Association of Counties, agreed with the premise, but not the conclusion.


“It’s a constitutional right, everybody embraces that,” he said. “But our constitutional rights are not without some regulation. Our free speech rights are restrained in some manner. We can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.”


Hartman encouraged discussion and possible rethinking of the fees, and said that the bill has been presented as “an all or nothing, take it or leave it scenario.”


The bill passed the Senate 32-2. Amendments to require a training course and to limit concealed carry to only West Virginia residents and only to those 21 and older were all rejected. The House Judiciary Committee plans to consider the bill on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. A spokesman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin would only say that the governor would review the bill if it passes both houses.


Only four states — Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming and Vermont — allow concealed carry without a permit. Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming all limit concealed carry only to those 21 and older.


Hartman urged lawmakers to listen to law enforcement.


“The people who are putting their lives on the line every day protecting our families,” he said, “We’ve completely ignored their point of view. We’ve not listened to anything they have to say.”