When state lawmakers said cities can’t pass stricter gun laws than the state, Charleston officials didn’t like it, but complied. City Council passed a bill in March repealing its regulations on the sale of handguns. The city also announced that it would no longer enforce its ban on carrying guns on most city property.
But city officials contend that conflicts in state law could let Charleston continue to ban guns at city-owned recreational centers. The West Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group, has sued the city over this contention. The city, in response, named the WVCDL as a defendant when it asked for clarification on the law.
The two sides argued their cases, each asking for a portion of the other’s argument to be dismissed, before Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky on Wednesday.
The WVCDL asked Stucky to declare the city’s law invalid, arguing that even though the city has agreed not to enforce it, they could still enforce it in the future.
The city argued that since both sides agree that the law is not being enforced and that state law takes precedence, there is no “judicable controversy,” a prerequisite for the judge to invalidate the law.
“It’s a distinction without a difference,” said Sean McGinley, a lawyer representing the city. “They haven’t shown or alleged that the city is acting in a way or intends to act in a way inconsistent with state law.”
But Shawn Romano, a lawyer for the WVCDL, said the city could always change its mind.
“There is an actual controversy, Mr. McGinley is not going to be in the front seat of the police cruiser when the police officer makes an arrest,” Romano said. “You’ve not heard him say this ordinance is not effective.”
Stucky requested that each side file written briefs within two weeks, before he decides.
Legal technicalities aside, the bulk of the remaining disagreement concerns whether the city can ban guns at certain city-owned rec centers that host school-sponsored events.
State law bans guns at schools, on school buses and at school-sponsored functions.
Several city-owned rec centers host Head Start programs, vocational classes, school sporting events and other school-related programs.
The city argues that the ban on guns at school facilities and events allows it to ban guns at most rec centers, while the WVCDL argues that the newly passed restrictions on city gun laws should take precedence, allowing people with concealed weapons permits to carry guns into rec centers.
The issue is further complicated because the new state law requires a secure storage area if guns are brought into rec centers. The city argues that this means a gun safe or gun locker -- which none of the rec centers has -- while the WVCDL argues for a looser definition, perhaps just a secure holster.
“Our kids play Little League,” McGinley said. “I can just see somebody who thinks they can bring a gun, setting it down beside them. There are little kids running all over the place. It’s just too easy.”
And since almost none of the rec centers hold school-sponsored events all the time, there could be an issue of guns being allowed at some times, but not at others.
“Maybe we’ll hire somebody at each one of theses facilities and their whole job will be to run out with a flashing sign saying ‘school-sponsored event, no guns,’” Paul Ellis, the city’s attorney, said sarcastically after the hearing. “It’s just completely unmanageable for us.”