Children funnel through the hall of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in downtown Charleston. City officials, including Parks and Recreation Director John Charnock, worry that provisions in proposed gun legislation could increase dangers in centers like this one.
If the House of Delegates passes SB317, city community centers could be required to let people with concealed-weapons permits bring their guns into the centers.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. --
Capital city officials say the latest proposal by state legislators to prevent cities from regulating firearms would allow people to carry guns in recreation and community centers full of children.
The bill (SB317) was passed by the state Senate on a 32-0 vote Tuesday, and is now in the House of Delegates. It would limit a city's ability to ban all firearms from municipal properties, such as a city hall, a courthouse or civic center. Cities could regulate only openly carried firearms or those concealed without a proper permit.
Public recreation centers -- defined in the bill as "any municipal swimming pool, recreation center, sports facility, facility housing an after-school program or other similar facility where children are present" -- also are included.
The bill also would require cities to post at every entrance of its facilities the terms of its firearm regulations or prohibitions. Charleston Parks and Recreation Director John Charnock said such provisions would make it harder to run the city's four community centers -- Kanawha City Community Center, Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, North Charleston Community Center and Roosevelt Community Center.
While the centers have full-time adult staffers, many have part-time high school and college students as employees during the summer months. Charnock said guns could make staffing the centers "more complicated."
"Some of the people working in the center, they're young," Charnock said. "What can they do when someone has a gun?"
City Council President Tom Lane said the proposal is "appalling" and that it could allow a situation similar the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. The shooting left 26 dead, including 20 children.
"While you have a country that is probably still in shock, we have a Legislature that affirmatively would allow somebody to do what [the Newtown shooter] did, as far as bringing a gun onto the premises where the children are," Lane said.
Community centers are places for people to socialize, take classes, exercise and play games, Charnock said.
"I just don't think we need to have that element of handguns in there," he said. "We do not need the opportunity of some argument or where somebody's horseplaying at the pool and the other one's not horseplaying. I don't need things escalating to the point where guns are involved."
Lane called a provision of the bill that states a city may be required to pay legal fees if found to be in violation of the code "insulting."
While the bill removed a provision in a 2013 law eliminating home-rule cities' rights to enact firearms regulations, it also struck a clause that allowed Charleston and other cities to keep gun ordinances that were enacted before 1999.
When asked if Charleston would continue in the state's home-rule program if the bill isn't passed, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said the decision is ultimately up to the City Council. However, Jones said, he "hadn't planned on asking [the] council to get us back in home rule."
The bill has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee, and the mayor believes the House of Delegates will pass it.
"It's the easiest bill they'll vote on," said Jones, who, like Lane, is a Republican. "It's going to pass the House. It may even get worse."
Charleston has a 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases, as well as limitations on the number of firearms a person may purchase each month and a registration requirement similar to federal background checks for firearms purchases.
Those laws were implemented in the 1990s to eliminate a drugs-for-guns trade between dealers in Charleston, the Midwest and the Northeast, as well as to decrease the city's high murder rate.
"Our ordinances have been highly successful," Lane said. "They address peculiar problems and they've done it in a way that has resulted in an incredible decrease in murders and the guns-for-drug trade."
Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, told the Gazette earlier this week that the bill is a compromise following "give and take" from lobbyists for the state Municipal League and those for gun interests.
Jones accused the National Rifle Association of writing the bill.
"It was done not at the behest and convenience of recreation centers and swimming pools," the mayor said. "It was done at the behest of the people carrying guns."
Lane criticized what he said was the Legislature's knuckling under to NRA lobbyists.
"It defies imagination that a Legislature would pick [the city's gun ordinances] apart and, as I understand it, pander to the out-of-state NRA people that have swarmed them."
The Gazette reported earlier that the legislation is to make gun laws uniform throughout the state, but Jones said that idea is a "false premise."
"They're not uniform at the state [level]. You can't take guns on the Capitol grounds up there," Jones said. "Why aren't the counties in it? Why isn't the state in it?"
Reach Rachel Molenda at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5102.