Sustained Outrage

Why Charleston limits handgun purchases

In the aftermath of the May 17, 1993, gangland-style slayings of Tyrone and Jermaine Judd at a Summers Street bar, a white sheet covers one of the victims and yellow evidence markers cover shell casings. Gazette file photo.

As some West Virginia lawmakers move to try to block Charleston’s two decade-old law to limit handgun sales, the Gazette’s Jim Balow this morning provided readers with a glimpse back to why the city passed this restriction in the first place:

Tom Lane remembers the furor over his plan to limit handgun sales in Charleston 20 years ago like it was yesterday.

“I have a vivid recall of the anger,” said Lane, a veteran member of City Council and its current president.

“My mother wanted me to have a police escort at the time. I got phone calls. I was accosted at my home. The NRA came out in force. I don’t recall threats directed at me, but it was clear that, being the focal point for this bill, they directed a lot of attention to me.”

This was long before Sandy Hook, Gabrielle Giffords and the Aurora theater, before Fort Hood and Virginia Tech and Columbine.

City Council members in 1993, by a slim margin, passed laws to make it harder for people to buy multiple handguns in Charleston, and from carrying guns on city property.

Now a number of state lawmakers seem intent on overturning those measures. A House of Delegates committee approved a bill Wednesday that would eliminate the ability for cities and counties to enact gun laws within their borders. The full House will consider the bill Friday.

The problem in Charleston in the early 1990s was not mass murders, but a drugs-for-guns trade that led to violence in the streets. Rose City Cafeteria, a Lee Street landmark for 41 years, closed its doors in 1992 because dinner customers were scared off by the crack cocaine sales and gunfire on nearby Summers Street.

Dallas Staples, who was then Charleston’s police chief, explained:

Charleston was experiencing a lot of violence, violence related to drugs.

West Virginia has some of the most lax gun purchasing laws. We worked closely with federal agencies, especially Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, where we got information from other states that weapons used in crimes in major cities — Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Washington — were being bought in Charleston.

Straw purchases were going on, where people were buying six, seven handguns at a time. People with no criminal background were being paid to go in and buy handguns.

West Virginia was just known as a place to get guns. What do you buy five 9mm guns for, and you no longer have them? Those people who were purchasing couldn’t justify why they were doing it.

There’s also some media coverage (we ran the AP story in our print edition) out this week about a major new study published by the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The AP summarized it:

States with the most gun control laws have the fewest gun-related deaths, according to a study that suggests sheer quantity of measures might make a difference.

Here’s the abstract:

Importance Over 30 000 people die annually in the United States from injuries caused by firearms. Although most firearm laws are enacted by states, whether the laws are associated with rates of firearm deaths is uncertain.

Objective To evaluate whether more firearm laws in a state are associated with fewer firearm fatalities.

Design Using an ecological and cross-sectional method, we retrospectively analyzed all firearm-related deaths reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System from 2007 through 2010. We used state-level firearm legislation across 5 categories of laws to create a “legislative strength score,” and measured the association of the score with state mortality rates using a clustered Poisson regression. States were divided into quartiles based on their score.

Setting Fifty US states.

Participants Populations of all US states.

Main Outcome Measures The outcome measures were state-level firearm-related fatalities per 100 000 individuals per year overall, for suicide, and for homicide. In various models, we controlled for age, sex, race/ethnicity, poverty, unemployment, college education, population density, nonfirearm violence–related deaths, and household firearm ownership.

Results Over the 4-year study period, there were 121 084 firearm fatalities. The average state-based firearm fatality rates varied from a high of 17.9 (Louisiana) to a low of 2.9 (Hawaii) per 100 000 individuals per year. Annual firearm legislative strength scores ranged from 0 (Utah) to 24 (Massachusetts) of 28 possible points. States in the highest quartile of legislative strength (scores of ≥9) had a lower overall firearm fatality rate than those in the lowest quartile (scores of ≤2) (absolute rate difference, 6.64 deaths/100 000/y; age-adjusted incident rate ratio [IRR], 0.58; 95% CI, 0.37-0.92). Compared with the quartile of states with the fewest laws, the quartile with the most laws had a lower firearm suicide rate (absolute rate difference, 6.25 deaths/100 000/y; IRR, 0.63; 95% CI, 0.48-0.83) and a lower firearm homicide rate (absolute rate difference, 0.40 deaths/100 000/y; IRR, 0.60; 95% CI, 0.38-0.95).

Conclusions and Relevance A higher number of firearm laws in a state are associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities in the state, overall and for suicides and homicides individually. As our study could not determine cause-and-effect relationships, further studies are necessary to define the nature of this association.

If you look more closely at the study, you see that West Virginia had a firearms fatality rate of 12.7 per 100,000 population. That compares to the national rate of 9.9 per 100,00 population. Also, West Virginia received just two out of a possible 28 points for our existing firearms laws. West Virginia receives point only for the absence of two laws: Employers not forced to allow firearms in parking lots and colleges are not forced to allow firearms on campus.