City gun laws under fire
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tom Lane remembers the furor over his plan to limit handgun sales in Charleston 20 years ago like it was yesterday.
"I have a vivid recall of the anger," said Lane, a veteran member of City Council and its current president.
"My mother wanted me to have a police escort at the time. I got phone calls. I was accosted at my home. The NRA came out in force. I don't recall threats directed at me, but it was clear that, being the focal point for this bill, they directed a lot of attention to me."
This was long before Sandy Hook, Gabrielle Giffords and the Aurora theater, before Fort Hood and Virginia Tech and Columbine.
City Council members in 1993, by a slim margin, passed laws to make it harder for people to buy multiple handguns in Charleston, and from carrying guns on city property.
Now a number of state lawmakers seem intent on overturning those measures. A House of Delegates committee approved a bill Wednesday that would eliminate the ability for cities and counties to enact gun laws within their borders. The full House will consider the bill Friday.
The problem in Charleston in the early 1990s was not mass murders, but a drugs-for-guns trade that led to violence in the streets. Rose City Cafeteria, a Lee Street landmark for 41 years, closed its doors in 1992 because dinner customers were scared off by the crack cocaine sales and gunfire on nearby Summers Street.
"Charleston was experiencing a lot of violence, violence related to drugs," said Dallas Staples, then the city's police chief.
"West Virginia has some of the most lax gun purchasing laws. We worked closely with federal agencies, especially Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, where we got information from other states that weapons used in crimes in major cities -- Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Washington -- were being bought in Charleston.
"Straw purchases were going on, where people were buying six, seven handguns at a time," Staples said. "People with no criminal background were being paid to go in and buy handguns.
"West Virginia was just known as a place to get guns," Staples said. "What do you buy five 9mm guns for, and you no longer have them? Those people who were purchasing couldn't justify why they were doing it."
Drug sales were skyrocketing, too, Lane said. Cheap big-city drugs sold at a premium in the Kanawha Valley.
"They would come in on weekends, sell the drugs, buy guns and take them back to the cities," Lane said. "The numbers were amazing. They could buy a gun for $50 and sell it for $500, so there were enormous profits."
Violence followed the drugs and guns.
"I vividly remember a meeting of City Council when we heard sirens and when the meeting ended, from the steps of City Hall we could see Summers Street lit up with blue police lights," Lane said.
"Two people were shot inside the City Life bar and managed to stumble outside and died with their blood running down the gutter."
Five men later pleaded guilty in the gangland-style slayings of brothers Tyrone and Jermaine Judd, federal drug informants from New York.
"That occurred while the Gazette was running a series of investigative articles on the guns-for-drugs trade," Lane said. "For me, that was the turning point."
Working with Staples and then-Mayor Kent Hall, Lane drafted a bill to limit gun sales in the city.
"The bill was targeted to what was occurring in Charleston," Lane said. "It was not randomly drawn. The bill was crafted to address weekend drug dealers, so there was a 72-hour waiting period.
Provisions that limited purchases to one gun a month and banned resale for 30 days targeted multiple straw purchases. Another provision required a criminal and mental health background check.
Despite the bill's limited focus, pro-gun forces mobilized.
"They rallied in front of City Hall," Lane said. "They packed the chamber on every occasion there was debate. In the early stages of the bill it seemed the bill was going to go down in smoke."
Newspaper articles from that time sound eerily familiar. The Gazette reported that opponents of the bill argued, "Rather than pass new laws that would penalize law-abiding citizens ... police should enforce laws already on the books."
Several influential groups, including the city's Chamber of Commerce and Charleston Renaissance Corp., threw their weight behind the bill.
"Another compelling thing happened," Lane said. "The Gazette ran a poll. I read the results again recently. I'm always heartened by them. The poll picked each part of the proposal: Do you support a background check? Do you support a waiting period? Do you support a limit of one gun a month?
"That poll showed overwhelming support. I think the lowest number was 85 percent. So that showed when calls were made to Charleston homes, mothers said they support it. I would say if you took a similar poll today, the results would be the same."
As the final council vote approached, Lane cranked up his lobbying efforts.
"The atmosphere was highly charged, the debate was vitriolic," he said. "It was the most difficult bill to get passed I've had in my career. I had to twist a lot of arms."
On July 20, barely two months after the Judd brothers were gunned down on Summers Street, council members passed the gun bill by the slimmest of margins, 14-12.
Supporters hailed what they hoped would be the first step in a statewide effort to restrict gun sales. Opponents vowed to fight on in court.
"It was basically passed by one vote, because a tie would have defeated the bill," said Chester Thompson, the former councilman for downtown Charleston.
"There were very outrageous exaggerations as to the need -- 60 to 80 percent of the guns used in crime in New York City and Washington came from Charleston," said Thompson, who voted against the bill.
"The supporters deserve a lot of credit. They did a lot of work putting up with the outrageous claims on both sides."
The restrictions went into effect right away.
"The immediate aftermath of passage of the ordinance is that some of the shops that sold firearms closed and we saw an almost immediate reduction of the guns-for-drugs trade in Charleston," Lane said. "If you compare the numbers, I'm confident you'd see a reduction in murders and violent crime."
Gun advocates soon turned their attention to the state Capitol. Despite pleas from then-Mayor Kemp Melton and Danny Jones, then the city's emergency services director, an NRA-backed bill to prohibit cities from limiting gun sales swept through the Legislature.
House members, perhaps with an eye on the upcoming election, passed the bill 96-2. State senators followed suit on a 30-3 vote. Only a veto by Gov. Gaston Caperton kept Charleston's law on the books.
A modified bill resurfaced two years later, and once again passed. Gov. Cecil Underwood vetoed it, then apologized a week later, saying he didn't realize cities like Charleston would not be affected.
Finally in 1999, the Legislature barred cities from passing new laws to restrict gun sales. Cities like Charleston with laws already on the books were grandfathered in.
This year, no fewer than 20 bills to weaken or repeal existing firearm laws are in the pipeline at the state Legislature, including several that would roll back city laws.
"Let me talk about guns, because there's some weird stuff going on out there," Mayor Danny Jones said while briefing City Council members Monday evening. "The House is going to vote to take away our gun ordinance. I don't know what's going to happen in the Senate, but it's pretty close."
Other bills would overturn a city ban on carrying weapons into City Hall, the Civic Center, Municipal Auditorium and other city property like parks, Jones said, and require the city to pay legal bills and expenses of anyone who wants to challenge city gun rules.
Jones blamed the National Rifle Association. "The NRA is so discredited nationally by [Gabrielle Giffords] and Newtown they can't go anywhere, but they can come here."
In a letter sent to all House members this week, Jones urged delegates to leave Charleston's gun laws alone.
"By turning back the clock and forcing local governments into a one-size-fits-all mandate under the banner of gun rights, the end result will empower drug dealers and gun runners to strengthen their trade in our capital city," he wrote.
"I doubt it will change anything," Jones conceded. "I may personally go to the Senate. I think the cause may be more hopeful there, although the NRA has a lock on those members."
Jones cited a 2001 incident in which federal prosecutors learned the gun used to injure two New Jersey police officers was bought by a straw purchaser at Will Jewelry & Loan, a South Charleston pawnshop.
"People do come here to sell drugs and buy guns," Jones said. "It's not a debatable issue. Our law slows them down. This will change us from a Sam's Club to an open-air market."
Staples said Charleston's law is just one piece in solving the crime puzzle. "At least we can say we have eliminated in Charleston the mass straw purchases. That ordinance in no way restricted people who hunt. It just didn't.
"I'd love for them not to bother cities," he said. "They passed these laws for a reason."
Lane said he thinks people pushing the new state gun laws are buying into the NRA rhetoric. "I'm incredulous that people think we need more guns.
"I'm very disappointed that other leaders from this county would pander to the NRA, to gun-rights people who in my opinion don't make a lot of sense. I can't believe what they're doing.
He said he was "disheartened that the Legislature could dismantle what we've accomplished.
"The city supported it, the electorate supported it and it has made the capital city much safer."
Reach Jim Balow at email@example.com or 304-348-5102.