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Mayors oppose bill to repeal city gun laws

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Three mayors from West Virginia cities in which pending legislation would overturn bans on firearms inside municipal buildings accuse delegates of undermining the power of local government.

Proponents of the bill say the goal is a uniform set of regulations for the entire state. The three mayors, however, argue that it takes local decisions away from local people.

The bill to nullify all city and county firearms ordinances (HB2760) swept through the House on a 94-4 vote last week. If passed by the Senate and signed into law, the bill would overturn a ban on guns inside government buildings in Dunbar, South Charleston and Martinsburg.

It would also overturn a 20-year-old Charleston ordinance aimed at ending the drugs-for-handguns trade by limiting sales to one handgun a month after a three-day waiting period. The city ordinance also includes background checks and a ban on guns in Charleston City Hall.

Dunbar Mayor Jack Yeager said the city council passed a ban on guns inside Dunbar City Hall and other municipal buildings "years and years ago."

Dunbar residents, he said, pressed the issue because they wanted to feel safe while going about government-related business. The pending legislation would undermine what the people wanted, he said.

"There is no government body closer to the people than the city council," Yeager said. "Local people have a right to decide local decisions."

Yeager plans to discuss the issue at future city council meetings to decide what they should do next.

"We need to show that our people have a right to make decisions about who has a right and who doesn't to carry a gun in city hall," he said.

Yeager traced the proposed legislation to a fight the city underwent a few years ago. The West Virginia Citizen's Defense League was pushing for more lenient gun laws in West Virginia and wanted to end bans in municipal buildings.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Second Amendment right for private citizens to keep guns applies to state and local government property. The Supreme Court recommended proponents seek to change those laws on the local level. The West Virginia Citizen's Defense League instead took the battle to the West Virginia Legislature.

"These legislators don't even come from the city," Yeager said. "How do they know what works best for us?"

South Charleston Mayor Frank Mullens said he was discussing the ordinance with someone and decided that guns aren't necessary in city buildings like the community center, where his son plays basketball.

"Those athletic events get heated and intense, and parents get riled up over their kids playing," Mullens said. "What if someone had a gun?"

Mullens said city council members passed a municipal gun ban years ago.

"I'm all for the right to bear arms, and I support it 100 percent, but there has to be common sense applied," he said. "A local official knows what their community wants better than the Legislature."

Martinsburg Mayor George Karos said the proposed legislation is designed to undermine his people.

"It's taking the local powers away from local municipalities and sending it back down to the Legislature in Charleston," he said.

Karos said his city council passed its ban four or five years ago. He's been tracking House bill and plans to talk about it at a city council meeting if it moves ahead in the Senate.

The bill has moved to the Senate Government Organization Committee, where it is expected to remain for the time being.

"We just want the equal powers they have," Karos said. "Our people just want to protect our employees that go into city court and our city hall."

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones has been a very vocal opponent of the bill and said the capital city limited sales to one handgun a month in the late 1990s because of a drugs-for-handguns trade. At the time, out-of-state criminals would purchase pistols in Charleston for resale on the black market in big cities where tough gun laws prevented criminals from buying.

It fueled a constant flow of narcotics into Charleston, Jones said.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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