Charleston officials say majority of businesses follow gun ordinance
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston city officials have had to reprimand businesses for violating the city's gun ordinance only twice since its passage 20 years ago, causing Police Chief Brent Webster to believe sellers are following the letter of the law.
Charleston prohibits businesses within city limits from selling more than one handgun to a single person within 30 days. The city also requires the businesses to run background checks and require three-day waiting periods for individuals who want to buy handguns.
The ordinance doesn't apply to hunting rifles.
Sellers must submit forms completed by themselves and the handgun buyers to the city police department, Webster said. A detective reviews the forms to ensure the businesses are in compliance.
The business also sends the forms to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Webster said.
After speaking with detectives who oversee the program, Webster said he could find only two instances of a business running afoul of the ordinance. In both instances, the business sold more than one handgun to an individual within 30 days.
"Detectives determined it was a clerical error in both cases," Webster said. "The businesses were let off with a stern warning."
Because the sellers were simply warned, Deputy Chief Jason Beckett would not identify them.
In both cases, a person went to the store to buy a handgun several days after already purchasing one and dealt with a different sales associate, Webster said.
"The detectives believed it was unintentional on the business's part," he said.
Detectives caught both cases by reviewing the forms, he said.
The officers have never noticed any violations of the three-day waiting period or the background checks.
"I'm not saying that something like that has never happened," Webster said. "But the businesses would be taking a pretty big risk violating the ordinance."
A retailer's city business license could be revoked if it were to violate the ordinance, Webster said. Police also could report the business to the ATF.
"They could end up losing their federal firearms license," Webster said.
The chief said detectives could perform "stings" similar to alcohol compliance checks if they noticed any disturbing trends at local firearms dealers.
The department has not seen the need to conduct such operations, he said.
"They (businesses) could take a shot at selling guns and not reporting it to us," Webster said. "But it's definitely a big risk for them."
Dozens of gun rights bills were introduced in the state Legislature this session, and one would have nullified Charleston's ordinance.
However, the bills are likely to die in Senate committees.
Charleston is not the only city to enact ordinances dealing with guns. So have South Charleston, Dunbar and Martinsburg.
However, the other city ordinances don't address firearm sales. They simply prohibit people from carrying firearms in city-owned facilities.
South Charleston's ordinance also states that gun buyers must follow all federal and state laws, Mayor Frank Mullens said.
"I have no problem with people's right to bear arms," Mullens said. "But I don't think people should be able to carry a gun into the South Charleston Community Center."
However, Mullens thinks cities should be able to regulate firearms sales in their communities and the decisions should not be made on the state level.
Mullens said his officers have not had occasion to enforce the ordinance prohibiting people from carrying firearms in city buildings.
Officers would rely on complaints about such instances, Police Chief Brad Rinehart said.
"I've been here for five years, and we've never had any problems," he said.
Officers in Dunbar would have to either see someone carrying a gun into a municipal building or receive a complaint to know if the ordinance was being violated, Mayor Jack Yeager said. He could think of no such instances.
Martinsburg Mayor George Karos and Police Chief Kevin Miller say officers in the Eastern Panhandle city have had no reported violations to deal with.
Martinsburg's ordinance specifically states that the officer must ask the person carrying the gun to leave the premises before an arrest can be made, Miller said.
"But we've never had to arrest anyone on this," he said.
Martinsburg's main concern was keeping guns out of City Hall, where municipal court is held, Karos said.
"We did this to protect our employees in City Hall," he said. "And I think it has worked extremely well."
Charleston Council President Tom Lane was the architect of his city's ordinance.
Lane, a Republican, believes the ordinance has worked very well although he lacks concrete evidence.
Drug dealers from big cities were coming to Charleston to sell drugs and buy guns. They could get higher prices for drugs here than in their own cities. By the same token, guns were cheaper in Charleston and could be sold in the bigger cities at high markups, Lane said.
Lane believes the ordinance was successful in reducing, or possibly even eliminating, this practice.
"I'm convinced this impediment we threw at the drug dealers caused them to at the very least go someplace else," he said.
Eight businesses in Charleston have licenses to sell firearms, according to the City Collector's office. That includes large retailers like Cabela's and Gander Mountain.
In 2012, 2,459 handguns were sold in the city, Beckett said.
Beckett did not have figures for handgun sales prior to 2012.