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Charleston mayor: 'We're not getting in the gun business'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "WARNING: Children entering municipal recreation centers may be exposed to strangers carrying concealed weapons - W.Va. Senate Bill 317"

That's the text of a possible sign that Charleston officials will place at entrances to city recreation centers if Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signs SB 317 into law.

One provision of the bill, which was passed by the Legislature last week, forces all municipalities in West Virginia to allow concealed carry firearms into municipally-owned recreation centers, which the Legislature legally defined as "any municipal swimming pool, recreation center, sports facility, facility housing an after-school program or other similar facility where children are regularly present."

While Charleston officials oppose most of the bill, the recreation center provision has caused the most stir.

"We're not going to make lockers for guns," Mayor Danny Jones said during a media event at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Community Center in Charleston. "We're not getting in the gun business. We're not doing it. These places are not here for guns."

Under SB 317, city-owned recreation centers would be required to allow concealed carry permit holders to brings guns into the facilities, a situation that has concerned Charleston officials.

In all, Charleston operates four public community centers and five public pools, though three of the pools are located at community centers. South Charleston and Dunbar also operate municipal recreation centers that would be affected. Both cities have laws that currently prohibit firearms in those facilities.

"It's one thing for the state to actually sanction...the carrying of pistols in this rec center," Jones said.

Jones said Charleston may be able to prevent guns at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Community Center because the center serves as a Head Start location operated by Kanawha County Schools, which he believes automatically makes possession of a firearm illegal under W.Va. Code §61-7-11A.

That law makes it a felony to possess a firearm or deadly weapon on "a school bus...or in or on a public or private primary or secondary education building, structure, facility or grounds including a vocational education building, structure, facility or grounds where secondary vocational education programs are conducted or at a school-sponsored function."

"That says 'Kanawha County Schools' and I think that gives us a legal leg to stand on," Jones said, pointing to a sign above the Head Start entrance at the recreation center.

Several community members were also present at the Martin Luther King center on Monday, including the Rev. Matthew Watts of Grace Bible Church and the Rev. Angela Waters of Faith Tabernacle.

Watts said he recognizes West Virginia is a largely rural state, but he said the Legislature should realize there are "urban pockets" with different needs.

"We do not believe this is in the best interest of the public," Watts said of the bill. "It's extremely frightening. I can't see where it's in the best interest of children anywhere."

Waters said community centers serve many children who have rough home lives, and the centers serve as a safe location for those children. She said is neglectful to send children to a place where guns are explicitly permitted.

"I think its ludicrous," she said. "I oppose this bill  wholeheartedly."

According to the bill's text, SB 317 was written in part to provide uniformity to gun laws in the state, and was heavily backed by national and state gun-lobbying groups.

SB 317 has been amended and largely rewritten several times since its introduction.

The original bill, sponsored by 18 senators from largely rural districts, not only would have prohibited all municipal gun laws but also would have allowed out-of-state residents and special interest groups to sue cities with gun laws remaining on their books and allow judges to force cities to pay damages to said groups.

A revision of the bill then took out the lawsuit provision, but still prohibited all municipal gun laws.

On Feb. 19, the Senate Judiciary Committee rewrote the bill to formally allow all municipalities to regulate firearms on municipal property and on streets during municipal events, but local ordinances concerning sales would still not be permitted.

Then, on Feb. 25 when SB 317 was before the full Senate, that body rewrote the bill again to still allow municipalities to regulate firearms in municipal buildings, on streets during municipally authorized events and in recreation centers. However, concealed carry permit holders would be allowed to bring guns in recreation centers and to municipally authorized events.

Furthermore, the bill would allow persons who sue cities over the provisions of the bill to be awarded attorney fees and court costs at the expense of the municipality. It also dictates that municipalities cannot be treated as an owner of real property for the purposes of W.Va. Code §61-7-14, which ensures the right of property owners to prohibit firearms on property they own.

"They took our right to do the same thing away," Jones said.


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