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Local leader up in arms about ‘right to bear arms'

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A bill that many government officials didn't see as controversial has been packing a lot of heat in many ways.

One local leader is concerned with the West Virginia Legislature's take on state residents' second amendment rights, but the lawmakers who worked on the bill say he doesn't understand the measure.

On March 16, the statewide public affairs show "The State Journal's Decision Makers" aired a disagreement between Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, and Charleston Mayor Danny Jones.

Jones accused Unger of not knowing the written law, but Unger said he is well aware of a law he was the lead sponsor of. The legislation in question, Senate Bill 317, attempts to create uniform gun laws throughout the Mountain State.

The measure overwhelmingly passed the West Virginia Senate unanimously then cleared the West Virginia House of Delegates 92-5, before being sent to the governor for his signature.

Jones has said he plans to pursue legal action if Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin doesn't veto the law.

"The purpose is to make the gun laws uniform throughout the state," Unger said. 

According to the bill, "a municipality may enact and enforce an ordinance or ordinances that prohibit a person from carrying or possessing a firearm openly or that is not lawfully concealed in a municipally owned recreational facility."

The bill states that a municipality may not prohibit a person who has a valid concealed handgun permit from carrying an otherwise lawfully owned firearm into a municipally owned recreation facility and securely storing the firearm out of view and access to others during their time at the municipally owned recreation facility.

The definition of a "municipally owned recreation facility" also is in the bill. It is a municipal swimming pool, recreation center, sports facility, facility housing an after-school program or other similar facility where children are regularly present.

"So they can't have it in view, and no one can access it," Unger said about guns at municipally owned recreational facilities under the bill. "They can lock it up, take it out to their vehicle or find another way of securely storing (the gun).

"A person with a concealed weapon permit and gun must show they have a permit and they themselves must secure that firearm prior to going through the rec center," Unger said.

Jones said he believes one recreational center in particular in Charleston was targeted in the bill, but the sponsors of the bill say they have never singled out any one building for the purpose of creating laws.

Sen. David Nohe, R-Wood, is a former mayor and police officer for the city of Vienna, a close neighbor to Parkersburg — the state's third largest city. 

"I think the bill goes very far in making all the laws uniform," Nohe said. "People carry guns all the time; most of the time they're illegal because they don't have permits."

Nohe said the intent of the bill was to make the laws throughout the state uniform and get rid of some of the cities had been "grandfathered in" with their own laws regarding firearms.

Unger said business owners in his district, in the city of Martinsburg, were concerned about not being able to let their customers carry weapons regardless of if they had a concealed carry permit. Unger said the law attempts to give every city the opportunity to treat people who want to legally carry a gun in their city the same.

Nohe said Jones seems to think West Virginia and its cities revolve around Charleston.

"We look at all cities equally, (Charleston) wasn't singled out in any way – it just so happens they had the grandfathered restriction," Nohe said.

Nohe said while he was mayor of Vienna many residents approached him with concerns about taking legal, concealed carry weapons into parks and on trails. He said people would feel safer knowing they could carry their handguns on the trails, rather than being alone and without protection.

Nohe has had a concealed carry permit for 40 years. 

"It's never been a problem," he said.

Jones isn't the only one with concerns about the bill.

Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, said she took issue with the legislation, not because she is against the second amendment, but because she had many unanswered questions about the measure.

"There's not enough detail in the bill about how it should be implemented," Poore said. "This has nothing to do with universal gun rights laws; it has to do with the safety of children."

Poore said she is concerned with teenagers who have summer jobs at some of the recreational centers in Charleston and who might be held accountable for helping even a law-abiding gun owner secure their weapons — a concern Jones expressed.

"Why would you not allow them at fairs and festivals but you will in after school programs," Poore said. "The language in the bill, that's my issue and it wasn't answered in committee or the floor."

Poore said she wouldn't be against the bill if the governor is able to address some of those concerns before it would become a law.

"I'm not against supporting the second amendment, I support people being able to carry guns," Poore said. 

Poore said she couldn't vote for SB 317 when it didn't make common sense to her to allow guns around children.

However, Unger said according to the law, it is the sole responsibility of the permit holder to secure his or her gun.

Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said he thought the intent of the bill was to not punish those who may not be aware they couldn't come into a municipal property with a gun.

"They can prohibit people from openly carrying or (prohibit) people that don't have a conceal carry permit," he said. 

Palumbo said a person can secure a legally owned, permitted gun out of the plain view of other people at municipal properties.

Jones believes the new legislation hinders the way the city could be able to enforce laws concerning guns.

"Unless we catch them at the door at the (Charleston) Civic Center," Jones said. "We have to wait until we can catch them inside if we can – I don't know if you know what that might mean during the Rough N' Rowdy when everybody up there's drinking beer and packing heat."

He is concerned with some of the events that around town that involve alcoho.

But Unger said municipalities can regulate the presence of guns during certain events, according to the bill. 

"If the city of Charleston doesn't want to pass an ordinance to prohibit guns that's their right," Unger said. "This enables them to do so."

Jones accused Unger of being influenced by lobbyists.

"You'll wind up in court," Jones said during the Decision Makers discussion with Unger. "You're the one taking orders from the National Rifle Association."

Unger said the NRA can lobby at the state Capitol, just like Jones can. The full intent of the bill is to protect the rights and safety of West Virginians, he said.

"This is about people exercising their constitutional rights to protect their children, themselves and their families," he said.