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Statehouse Beat: State's gun deaths pass sad milestone

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West Virginia has passed an unfortunate milestone, according to data from the state Bureau of Vital Statistics: For the past three years that data is available, firearm fatalities have surpassed motor vehicle fatalities in the state.

2016 was the watershed year, when the number of gun deaths (335) for the first time exceeded motor vehicle deaths (297).

That trend continued in 2017, when firearm deaths exceeded motor vehicle deaths 349 to 337. It occurred again in 2018 (the last year that data is available), when 347 firearm deaths exceeded 333 motor vehicle fatalities.

Looking back at 20 years of statistics, dating to 1999, motor vehicle fatalities had significantly outpaced gun fatalities for each of the prior 17 years.

The biggest gap was in 2006, when motor vehicle crashes claimed 422 lives, compared to 260 lives lost to firearm fatalities.

From an average of 405.2 motor vehicle fatalities a year from 2004-08, the number of fatalities fell to 348.8 a year from 2009-13, and dropped to an average of 319.2 deaths a year from 2014-19.

From 2004-08 and from 2014-19, the average number of annual motor vehicle fatalities has declined by 21.2 percent.

That makes sense. Cars keep getting safer, with all kinds of new gizmos from automatic braking and lane drift warnings to advanced air bag systems. Law enforcement has also done its part, with strict enforcement of seat belt, distracted driver and driving under the influence laws.

With the increased popularity and availability of ride services, fewer people are taking the risk of buzzed driving after a party or night on the town.

Another phenomenon likely contributing to the decline is that more and more young people are putting off getting their drivers’ licenses.

Conversely, firearm deaths are on the rise, from an average of 255.2 a year from 2004-08 to 271.8 a year from 2009-13 and 319.4 a year from 2014-18 — the period when they surpassed the average annual number of motor vehicle fatalities.

That’s a staggering increase of 25.2 percent.

Unlike motor vehicles, where there have been multiple concerted efforts to improve safety and reduce fatalities, the state Legislature in the past five years has been systematically repealing sensible gun safety measures, in a state that already had some of the nation’s weakest gun safety regulations.

Municipal gun regulations have been wiped out, including Charleston’s one-handgun-per-week purchase limit and its ban on weapons in recreation centers.

Prohibitions on weapons in parked vehicles in school, business and Capitol parking lots were rolled back. Prohibitions on firearms in state and county parks also fell.

Most devastatingly, in 2016 the Legislature overrode then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s veto of legislation to legalize concealed carry of handguns without a permit. At the veto ceremony, Tomblin was surrounded by dozens of law enforcement officers who opposed the bill, including then-Raleigh County Sheriff Steve Tanner, who said, “This is just bad law. It endangers law enforcement, and it endangers the public.”

It’s no coincidence that prior to 2016, state firearm fatalities had not topped 300 in any given year.

In 2016, 335 people were killed with firearms in West Virginia, after permitless concealed carry went into effect that May. The number went to 349 in 2017 and 347 the following year.

The number of homicides committed with a firearm increased 44 percent in the three years concealed carry without a permit became law compared to the three years before.

All other gun deaths (mostly accidental shootings) went up 33 percent, from an average of 12 to 16 a year.

Most disturbingly, suicides by firearm jumped 59 percent, from an average of 161 a year to an average of 256.

Just as when you improve vehicle safety and enforce zero tolerance for impaired driving, the result is fewer motor vehicle fatalities, when you relax gun safety laws and make guns more readily accessible, the result is that more people die.

Nonetheless, of late, the Legislature has felt compelled each session to make additional sacrifices at the altar of the gun manufacturers’ lobby. The first bill on that agenda this session would allow anyone to have firearms in vehicles parked on school property. (Currently, that privilege is limited to persons with valid conceal-carry permits.)

Last year, the Legislature passed a bill forcing private businesses and associations to allow firearms in vehicles in their parking lots, over objections of multiple business organizations.

The any-driver-can-bring-a-gun-to-school bill passed the Senate 33-1, with only retiring Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, raising a peep of objection to the idea.

Evidently, the other 33 senators believe their actions have no consequences.

(Thanks go out to Wes Holden for the head’s up on the Vital Statistics numbers.)

•••

One of the unfortunate developments under the new legislative leadership is the trend toward giving bills a single committee assignment.

Back in the day, all bills went to at least two committees, including at least one of the two major committees in each house — Finance or Judiciary. That assured more scrutiny of bills, and in the Senate, meant that at least three-quarters of senators would have familiarity with any given bill by the time it reached the floor.

That level of scrutiny is gone. Looking randomly at bill introductions Wednesday, nine of 18 House bills are single-committee referenced, and eight of 10 Senate bills are single-shots.

Single-shotting makes it possible to rush measures through before opponents get a chance to get organized.

Consider Senate Bill 560, which would allow aides in nursing homes to administer medication, something current law requires an RN or LPN to do. Gov. Jim Justice vetoed a similar bill in 2018, noting, “Lessening the professional standards for those caring for nursing home residents would inevitably result in diminished care.”

The latest version of the bill passed the Senate Wednesday on a 27-7 vote. The House received the message at 11 a.m. Thursday, and it was single-shot to the House Health and Human Resources Committee, which took up the bill that afternoon and advanced it back to the full House before opponents had any opportunity to respond.

Reasonable people might ask, why the rush?

•••

State treasurer candidate Riley Moore is having a fundraiser in Charleston Feb. 13, with an interesting lineup of special guests, event chairs and committee members.

Most eye-catching is that Murray Energy PAC, the political arm of the bankrupt coal company owned by Robert Murray, is listed as an event chairman. (The invitation does not mention whether Mr. Nutterbutter will be in attendance.)

Other event chairs and committee members include Randy Cheetham, with Arch Coal; Sammy Gray, with FirstEnergy; Bob Orndorff, with Dominion Energy; Steve Stewart, with Appalachian Power; Greg Hoyer, with EQT; and Greg Thomas, longtime spokesman, consultant and aide to Don Blankenship.

(There’s also the usual cast of GOP VIPs, including Senate President Mitch Carmichael, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw and former Senate president Bill Cole.)

In many states, the office of treasurer, the state’s chief financial officer, is an appointive, non-partisan position. Curious that coal, natural gas and electric power utilities would find it important to throw their support to a particular candidate.

•••

Finally, it is with sadness that we say goodbye to one of the most irascible and brilliant personalities ever to grace West Virginia politics, H. John Rogers, who died a week ago Saturday.

Rogers spent a lifetime consistently grabbing headlines, with actions ranging from the ridiculous — he once picketed a tea party rally in his hometown of New Martinsville with a “What Would Arch Do?” sign — to the sublime, like going to court in an attempt to prevent Tomblin from drawing the salary of governor while he was technically serving as the Senate president, acting as governor.

Rogers, a West Virginia University undergrad and Harvard law grad, for many years wrote a column for a statewide counterculture magazine, providing brilliant political and social commentary in a writing style so complex, baroque and interwoven that I frequently felt the urge to sketch out a schematic to try to break it all down.

He will probably be best remembered for a news conference during his 1980 gubernatorial run, when he left the podium to punch a reporter in the face. A better representation of the man might be that in semi-retirement, Rogers counseled death row inmates in western Pennsylvania.

He called frequently with the latest gossip or political observation, and I will certainly miss hearing from him.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

Funerals for Sunday, July 12, 2020

Cromley, Doris - 2 p.m., Good Shepherd United Methodist Church.

Harrison, Jeffrey - Noon, Coonskin Park, Shelter #18, Charleston.

Hiser, Audrey - Noon, Wallace Memorial Cemetery, Clintonville.

Massey, Paul - 2 p.m., Restlawn Memory Gardens, Victor.