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Gun restrictions or home rule? Charleston must choose

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With a little more than five months until its application deadline, the city of Charleston remains undecided as to whether it will reapply for the state's Municipal Home Rule Program or not.

During the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers added to the bill a set of limitations regarding cities' abilities to implement gun control laws. It passed after a House-Senate compromise was reached.

Under the new version of the law (which also expanded the program to include 16 new cities), municipalities that participate in home rule may do so only if they repeal city gun ordinances. Charleston is the only original home-rule city that has such laws.

Those laws were implemented in the 1990s to eliminate a drugs-for-guns trade between dealers in Charleston, the Midwest and Northeast, as well as to bring down the city's high murder rate, according to City Council President Tom Lane, a Republican councilman at-large.

"That's why we picked a 72-hour waiting period [for the purchase of guns]," Lane said of the gun-sale ordinance that was meant to discourage dealers from purchasing a large amount of guns during weekend trips to the city.

Charleston also limits the number of guns a person can buy each month and has a registration requirement similar to federal background checks for firearms purchases.

Because of last year's amendments to the home-rule bill, municipalities no longer will be able to restrict the ability to openly carry firearms. Guns could be barred from municipal buildings, but those with concealed-carry permits will still be allowed to carry weapons on municipal property, such as parks and city-owned buildings.

Lane said he isn't prepared to issue an opinion as to whether Charleston will opt out of home rule next year or not.

"I want to have a better understanding as to the full ramifications of it," Lane said, "but obviously, it is a matter we will have to take up in earnest come later in the spring."

Mayor Danny Jones said he doesn't expect the Legislature to change last year's amendments in the upcoming legislative session. The city has until June 1 to reapply to the program.

"I predicted last year [that the Legislature] would take our ordinance away from us arbitrarily," Jones said. "[We are] not holding out for anything. [We] just haven't decided yet."

Gun rights advocates in the state have an interest in Charleston's decision. Last week, the West Virginia Citizens Defense League requested an injunction against the city in hopes of forcing Charleston to eliminate its gun ordinances immediately, instead of waiting to opt out of home rule.

Lawyers for the WVCDL argue that a sales tax implemented by the city earlier this year proves the city plans to continue its participation in the home-rule program.

"We're not worried about that lawsuit," Jones said. "It's a nuisance case. It's a fringe organization."

Lane said he worries when he thinks about what repealing Charleston's gun ordinances might mean for public safety. While Charleston still has issues with drugs and violent crime, he said the city saw a dramatic drop in its murder rate after those laws were implemented.

"Our interstates converge here," Lane said. "There is no reason to think that, if everything is opened up again and there's no restraint on gun sales in Charleston, those drug dealers won't be back here doing what they did before."

The home-rule law -- passed in 2007 as a pilot program -- was intended to give cities increased governance.

While participating in the pilot program, Charleston has implemented a sales tax and a use tax to pay for upgrades to the Civic Center, eliminated a business and occupation tax for manufacturing and organized an urban deer hunt.

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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