Sustained Outrage

Guns in W.Va.: Permits, politics and the press

Gun Violence Grave Markers

The Washington Monument stands behind thousands of grave markers erected in a mock cemetery on the National Mall in Washington, Thursday, April 11, 2013, to honor the victims of gun violence . (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

There’s an interesting story making the rounds in West Virginia about a reported increase in the issuance of concealed weapons permits across our state. Here’s how it starts:

The number of concealed weapons permits issued annually in West Virginia has more than quadrupled in the past five years.

In 2009, county sheriffs’ departments issued 11,160 permits allowing residents to carry concealed handguns in most public places. In 2013, that number had jumped to 44,981.

The largest increase was from 2012 to 2013, when the number of permits issued annually increased by more than 15,000, up from 29,712 in 2012.

Those numbers, compiled by the West Virginia State Police, are only the permits issued each year. A permit is valid for five years, so the total number of West Virginians licensed to carry concealed handguns is much higher.

Those numbers, compiled by the West Virginia State Police, represent all active permits. The number includes both new permits and renewal permits.

While some may have been revoked or surrendered, a total of 126,514 permits were issued in the five years from 2009-13.

CORRECTION: In Thursday’s West Virginia Press Association article on concealed weapons permits quadrupling over the last five years, it was the total number of active permits that quadrupled over five years, not just new permits, as was incorrectly stated in the article. Renewals are included in that total number of active permits that quadrupled. The numbers represent the total number of active permits.

The story is getting a fair amount of play, in large part because it was reported and written by Kris Wise Maramba for the West Virginia Press Association, meaning it’s likely to start appearing in newspapers around the state (see here, here and here for examples so far).  The story shows what is clearly an important and newsworthy trend:

gun permit graphic

Gazette graphic by Tye Ward

But what does this trend mean for West Virginians? Well, the media spokesman for the West Virginia State Police has plenty to say about that:

“What you have to remember is these are law-abiding citizens going through the proper process,” said Lt. Michael Baylous, spokesman for the West Virginia State Police. “The criminals don’t go through the proper process to get a permit.

“Do we encounter more people in traffic stops who have weapons? That might be fair to say,” Baylous said. “But nine times out of 10, they do the right thing and inform us they’re carrying.”

Baylous said his experience reviewing incident reports from around the state causes him to believe the number of shootings classified as “self-defense” has increased in recent years, but specific data was not immediately available.

“Just from what I’ve seen, I have seen more people standing up and protecting themselves,” he said.

Baylous said he believes national attention to high-profile violent crimes might be spurring more people to want to arm themselves in public.

“It’s clear to me, just from the position I’m in, the moral fabric of our country seems to be wearing thin, and you see more heinous acts being committed each day,” he said. “(Carrying a concealed weapon) is a personal choice, and I see why more people might be making that choice.”

While Lt. Baylous may not have any data immediately available to back up his opinion, we do know — as has been reported on this blog and in the Gazette (see here, and here) — that West Virginia has one of the highest firearms fatality rates in the country.

We also know that studies show more concealed weapons means more crime, for example, or a discussion of West Virginia’s terribly high suicide rate. We know that having guns in a home is a serious risk factor for completing a “successful” suicide. And we know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the safest home for children and teens is one without guns, We know that West Virginia consistently receives poor rankings for having weak gun safety laws.

Of course, these sorts of facts are often left out of the press coverage of gun issues in West Virginia.  The broader issues raised are most certainly left out of daily coverage most state newspapers do about crime, or about accidental shootings or about suicide.  Stories like the one the Gazette’s Erin Beck did recently about our state’s domestic violence problem and its roots in our gun culture are few and far between, as is media coverage that points out most state residents favor stronger gun safety measures like the tougher background checks pushed by Sen. Joe Manchin.

Our statewide media’s frequent silence is one of the reasons that political campaigns like the Senate race between Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant can talk so much about the candidates’ love for guns and the Second Amendment, yet say so little about what either candidate would do about West Virginia’s huge problem with gun-related deaths