CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While they protect everyone else, police officers live with ever-present danger. They can't guess whether a routine traffic stop or domestic violence call will bring gunfire from a doped-up or half-crazed attacker. Odds are slim. Months may pass without incident. But the peril never disappears.
Tuesday's tragic killing of a state trooper during a drunken driving arrest spotlights the hazard. This outline of the episode has emerged:
Troopers halted an erratic young driver on I-79 near Wallback, Clay County, 37 miles northeast of Charleston. The tipsy suspect was in a truck stolen from Oak Hill. He was put into the back seat of a police car with his hands shackled in front of him, but he somehow slipped free, pulled a hidden pistol from his pants and began shooting.
A veteran corporal was killed and a young trooper critically wounded. A tow truck driver who had come for the stolen vehicle also was shot. The suspect fled on foot, but was spotted by Roane and Clay sheriff deputies. A shootout ensued, wounding a deputy and killing the suspect.
The killer, a troubled young man with a minor record of drug and police problems, wasn't legally allowed to carry a loaded gun because he had been convicted of domestic violence against his parents. But that didn't prevent him from bearing a 9mm pistol.
For decades, this newspaper has urged reforms to protect people from America's deadly pistol carnage, which is far worse than the toll in any other advanced democracy. But few reforms occur, and the slaughter continues. Sometimes a solution seems impossible, because this country is saturated with hundreds of millions of pistols, plus assault weapons. Licensing laws don't deter widespread illegal carrying.
West Virginians voted overwhelmingly in 1986 for a right-to-bear-arms amendment to the state constitution, which lets thousands of permit holders hide loaded pistols in their pockets. Fortunately, most of them are law-abiding, or gun murders would be worse.
Can anything be done to prevent tragedies like the Tuesday nightmare alongside I-79? Perhaps state leaders could appoint a task force to study the dilemma posed by young men who roam illegally with hidden guns.
Meanwhile, West Virginia mourns the public defenders who became victims of this blight.