West Virginians are more likely than people in other states to use guns to kill wives and girlfriends, to kill people accidentally and to kill themselves, according to a new report released this week.
The report, from the Center for American Progress, looked at 10 categories of gun violence. It found that West Virginia ranks among the top in several areas, including the export of guns later used in crimes, mass shootings, fatal gun accidents, gun-related suicides, police officers killed with a gun, fatal shootings by police and gun-related murders of women by intimate partners.
The center conducted a similar study in 2013 to look at the connection between the strength or weakness of a state’s gun laws and rates of gun violence. Since then, eight states enacted universal background checks in response to the fatal shootings of 20 children and several adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, bringing the number of states with those checks up to 18. Also since then, 20 states strengthened their laws to help keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.
Some states have taken the opposite approach, according to study authors Chelsea Parsons and Eugenio Weigend, loosening laws on where guns may be carried and weakening or eliminating concealed carry permit requirements. West Virginia eliminated the concealed carry permit requirement this year.
The authors found that the 10 states with the weakest gun laws have an aggregate level of gun violence that is 3.2 times higher than the 10 states with the strongest gun laws. To determine the strength of a state’s gun laws, they looked at the “2015 Gun Law State Scorecard” prepared by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
West Virginia was not ranked in the bottom 10, but the authors did view the state’s laws as weak. The report does not list the state’s ranking, but the center graded West Virginia a D-minus at the time, noting that the state could improve its score by requiring background checks on private sales, prohibiting the open carry of guns in public and requiring mental health reporting for use in background checks. West Virginia had not yet enacted the law that currently allows concealed carry without a permit.
“As the gun debate continues to churn,” the authors wrote, “policymakers at all levels of government must take action to close dangerous loopholes and enact strong gun laws to protect all of the nation’s communities from this national disgrace.”
After reviewing the report, West Virginia Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said he took issue with the authors’ premise.
“It is the perpetrator that commits the act,” Carmichael said in an email.
The authors cited a Public Policy Polling survey that found 84 percent of voters in West Virginia support background checks for all gun purchases.
“Only when the majority raise their voices above the din of the small, but loud, few, will elected leaders make common sense gun policy a priority,” Charleston City Councilwoman Karan Ireland said in a Center for American Progress release. “And only then will we see a reversal of this terrible trend.”
Among the study’s findings:
n West Virginia had the highest rate of any state for the export of guns later used in crimes. With a rate of 52.1 per every 100,000 people, West Virginia had a rate of interstate crime gun trafficking that was 163 percent higher than the national average from 2010 to 2015.
Dewayne Haddix, resident agent in charge for the Clarksburg office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said that West Virginia is considered a “source state” for surrounding states with more stringent gun laws, such as Maryland. They’ve noticed that out-of-state drug dealers are increasingly using West Virginia guns as a source of currency.
“West Virginia’s marketplace imports drugs and exports guns,” Haddix said.
He advised gun owners to keep a list of the firearms they own, including identifying information such as serial numbers and where they were bought, in case the guns are stolen.
n From 2006 to 2015, there were four mass shootings — defined as shooting incidents in which four or more people were killed.
n West Virginia’s rate of fatal gun accidents ranked fourth in the country. That rate is 5.7 per 1 million people from 2005 to 2014, the second-highest rate in the country.
An Associated Press and USA Today investigation, released this weekend, also found that West Virginia ranked 14th in the nation for accidental shootings involving minors from Jan. 1, 2014 to June 30, 2016. That analysis found 11 incidents, including six injured minors and one dead minor, during that time. No state law requires West Virginia gun owners to lock their weapons.
n The state had the seventh-highest rate of gun-related suicide. From 2005 to 2014, 1,972 people died in West Virginia by a gun-related suicide. The rate of 9.98 gun-related suicides per 100,000 people was 67 percent higher than the national average.
Carmichael said he doesn’t think curtailing the use of guns would “solve the problem.”
“I think it needs to be focused on the person rather than on the inanimate object,” he said.
Attempted suicide is much more likely to be lethal when a gun is used. The report cites a study that found 85 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm are fatal.
n West Virginia ranked seventh for police officers killed with a firearm, and 11th for fatal shootings by police.
n The state ranked 11th-worst in the nation for the rate of gun-related murders of women by intimate partners from 2005 to 2014, with a rate of 5.24 per 1 million women.
Although total domestic violence deaths declined, guns were even more likely to be involved in the 2015-2016 fiscal year, according to Tonia Thomas, team coordinator for the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She said the organization uses a clipping service and reports from local agencies to review domestic violence deaths each year, and found that from Oct. 1, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016, there were 25 domestic violence deaths, and 23, or 89 percent of domestic violence deaths involved guns. Ten of those were women killed by men, and nine were killed with a gun.
Thomas, who has been collecting the information for seven years, said the percentage used to be closer to 50-60 percent. She doesn’t know why the percentage jumped.
Thomas said that current gun laws in West Virginia addressing domestic violence are adequate, but general gun laws could be stricter. She surmised that since in general, gun laws in West Virginia are lax, that could be contributing to the high rate of gun-related domestic violence murders. She didn’t know whether the recent concealed carry legislation affected the numbers.
“I guess we’ll see,” she said.
Thomas said domestic violence prevention advocates call for closing the gun show loophole and requiring background checks, in particular. They also advise police to think about whether guns will still be accessible to abusers when they are given to third parties for safe keeping.
“Check out the individual that’s taking responsibility,” she said. “Is it your father who lives next door?”
n West Virginia had the 14th-highest rate of gun-related deaths of any state. From 2005 to 2014, 2,666 people were killed with guns in West Virginia. The rate of 13.94 gun-related deaths for every 100,000 people is 36 percent higher than the national average.
n The state ranked 27th for gun homicides. The rate was 3.04 per 100,000 people.
n West Virginia ranked 30th for gun deaths among people under age 21. The rate was 3.8 per 100,000 people under age 21.
n While African-Americans make up about 4 percent of the state population, they account for approximately 16 percent of gun-related homicide victims.
The authors noted that correlation does not prove causation, but said the association “cannot be ignored.” The authors also noted that other factors impact violence, including “persistent poverty, lack of employment and educational opportunities, and a breakdown in the police-community relationship that imperils community safety.” They also note that the figures could be affected by a high rate of gun ownership in an area.