Sustained Outrage

A few weeks ago, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued a press release making this announcement:

morriseyWest Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced today that West Virginia concealed handgun licenses will now qualify as an alternative to the background check requirements of the Brady Law. As a result, West Virginians with concealed handgun licenses (“CHL”) issued on or after June 4, 2014, will be exempted from undergoing additional background checks every time the license-holder seeks to purchase a firearm from a licensed dealer.

AG Morrisey commented:

We are proud to say West Virginia concealed handgun licensees now qualify for a benefit that has been secured by less than a majority of the 50 states. This is a significant development for law-abiding gun owners in West Virginia who frequently contact our Office regarding the state’s ongoing efforts to qualify for the Brady exemption.

Quite a few media outlets picked up on the release, pretty much publishing what it said without question — and without asking firearms safety advocates or experts for any comment on the development. I found stories here, here, here, and here. The Daily Mail even published an editorial praising the development.

But in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, reporter David Gutman provided some much-needed context to the issue, explaining:

The newest change to West Virginia’s gun laws will make buying a gun a few minutes quicker for some people, but will also make it easier for some people who have recently committed a crime to buy a gun.

The story went on:

The change, announced by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, was made possible after the Legislature passed a bill in March clarifying procedures for getting concealed weapons permits.

The only substantive changes made by the new law are two sentences that say that to get a permit, an applicant cannot be barred from owning a gun by another section of state code, or by federal law.

The bill passed both the House of Delegates and the state Senate unanimously, with little notice.

Because the Legislature added those sentences, making it consistent with federal law, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gave the state a so-called “Brady exemption,” which lets permit holders buy a gun without the background check. West Virginia is the 23rd state to get a Brady exemption.

Nowhere in the bill did it say the changes would result in fewer background checks.

And here’s the problem:

A federal background check is one of the requirements to qualify for a concealed weapons permit in West Virginia, so requiring another check before buying a gun was, in some ways, redundant.

But permits are good for five years and there could be problems in the interim that will no longer be caught.

If a permit holder does something in the five years after getting a permit that should keep them from buying a gun (committing an act of domestic violence, for example) there will be no background check at the time of purchase to stop them from getting the gun.

“Anytime during those five years they’d be able to go purchase a weapon,” said Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Five years. That’s a long time for something to happen.”

In fact, Cutilletta’s organization lists the sort of measure West Virginia has adopted as a key loopholes in federal firearms laws:

Federal law allows individuals who hold certain firearms-related permits issued by state or local governments (such as concealed weapons permits) to bypass the federally-required background check.  This exemption — the so-called “Brady exemption” — allows some prohibited persons to acquire firearms when a state permit holder falls into a prohibited category after issuance of the state permit and the state fails to immediately revoke the permit.

As David Gutman’s story explained:

The lengths that sheriffs departments go to to make sure permit holders have not become ineligible to own a gun vary significantly by county.

“I don’t have time to go back and check everybody who gets arrested,” said Putnam County Sheriff Steve Deweese. “A lot of stuff could be overlooked through the system.”

The Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department, the state’s largest, has a deputy, retired from active duty, whose entire job now, save for a little clerical work, is trying to keep the county’s list of permit holders up to date.

He gets copies of indictments, arrest records, checks the jail website and looks at magistrate and circuit court records trying to cross reference names on those lists with names on the county’s list of weapons permits.

The county issued 194 weapons permits in the last week of May.

“It requires an investment of time and him going and searching new databases,” said Cpl. Brian Humphreys. “The problem is it’s not foolproof.”

Remember, as reported on this blog before, West Virginia has one of the highest firearms fatality rates in the country.