Pro-ownership view dominates state gun legislation
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Legislature has had a few partisan clashes this session, but one issue seems to be uniting Democrats and Republicans: gun rights.
Congress and some states are considering assault weapon bans and similar measures in response to recent mass shootings in Connecticut, Colorado and elsewhere. But in West Virginia, lawmakers seek to allow firearms in schools and at the state Capitol, block enforcement of any new federal gun laws, and declare all future control measures -- whether federal, state or local -- invalid.
Other measures would exempt firearms from federal rules when they are made and then sold within the state's borders, and go after the medical license of any physician who asks a patient about having guns to gather statistics or justify counseling.
So far, at least 33 bills involving firearms have been introduced, most of them in the House. Nearly half of the 100 delegates also co-sponsored a non-binding measure Wednesday calling for Congress to preserve the Second Amendment. The resolution invokes the December massacre of 20 children and six adults at a grade school in Newtown, Conn., while arguing that "the real issue, the real threat, is dangerous criminals and the seriously mentally ill who need supervision and treatment.''
"Millions of Americans own firearms and do so safely, responsibly and legally,'' the measure reads in part. "Law abiding citizens should not be punished for the crimes of evil people.''
Delegates are scheduled to vote Monday on a bill that would repeal such local gun ordinances as Charleston's limit of one handgun purchase per month, with the buyer required to wait 72 hours before getting the weapon.
Of the 13 measures already passed by the House this session, one approved unanimously makes clear that the government cannot confiscate guns or ammunition during declared states of emergency and that citizens can sue if it tries.
The pending measures arise in a state with a high rate of gun ownership and a Legislature where at least 49 of 134 members belong to the National Rifle Association.
"The crux of the issue is, because of what happened at Newtown and the response in Washington in terms of the threat of more goal control, it has created a higher sensitivity in West Virginia among gun owners and other supporters of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arm,'' House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley said.
A Harrison County lawyer, Miley co-sponsored both the ordinance repeal and anti-confiscation bill. His committee endorsed each. But Miley also questioned how many more gun-related measures might advance this session. He said at least two of the pending bills seeking to block new federal gun control regulations would threaten anyone who tried to carry them out with a felony criminal charge.
"How could we have state and federal law enforcement in conflict?'' Miley said. "Some seem to be very problematic. They may sound good in theory, but actually passing a bill that can be implemented is another story.''
Attempts to nullify federal laws have been struck down time and again by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court also ruled in 2005 that something made and used within a single state -- in this case, marijuana in California -- still affects interstate commerce and falls under federal oversight. That may undermine the pending bill addressing guns made and sold within West Virginia.
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones has decried the bill repealing ordinances in his and other cities. A Republican, Jones questioned whether Democrats are shifting to the right in response to the November election.
West Virginia voters soundly rejected President Barack Obama's re-election while increasing the GOP's margin in the Legislature. Though still the minority in both chambers, Republicans now hold 46 of 100 House seats.
"I don't know how well they've followed the NRA script in the past, but they're clearly trying to follow it in the future,'' Jones said of Democrats.
But Miley said he and other Democrats have sponsored gun rights' measures in previous years. He also said that with such pressing issues this session as inmate crowding and public schools, "we can't spend all of our time focused on gun laws when we're trying to move West Virginia forward.''
The NRA has noticed this session's efforts, applauding them in a bulletin last month.
"The NRA is proud to work with an overwhelmingly bi-partisan group of state legislators in Charleston who appreciate and share the same profound respect and support for the Second Amendment as do our members in West Virginia,'' the group said.