When I was growing up in the 1950s and trying to learn as much as I could about guns, I tried a few times to talk my father into buying a pistol for him or the family. Dad liked pistols and was a good pistol shot. My dad felt that the state handgun laws were just too strict and unreasonable.
Between 1920 and 1930, the state was engulfed in the coal mine wars going on in several locations. In addition to this, hundreds of families were involved in Hatfield-McCoy-type feuds that would often get out of control.
The legislature decided that the state needed a law that would discourage pistol toting. The Legislature succeeded in passing what was called “The Johnson Pistol Bill.” Under this new law, no permit was required to possess or purchase a handgun, but to carry was a different story.
I remember the late Bart Townsend, a conservation officer at a regional Department of Natural Resources meeting, telling sportsmen that if you lived in the city and owned a pistol, the only thing you could legally do with it, unless you had a permit to carry, was clean it, mount it on a wall and look at it.
Along with a lot of inconvenience, getting a license to carry a handgun in any manner was complex, expensive and time-consuming. Hunting with a handgun was expressly forbidden under state law. To take it out in the country in a motor vehicle to target shoot was also illegal, according to the Johnson Pistol Law.
To acquire a license to carry, the applicant had to present a petition to the county circuit court and be able to have sufficient reason to need a license to carry. If the judge approved, the applicant had to show proof that he was under a $3,500 bond before he could purchase the $50 license good for only three years. Another inconvenience was publishing a notice in a newspaper regarding appearing before a circuit court judge to get a handgun carry license. Yes, West Virginia’s pistol laws were just about as unreasonable as Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.
The first break in these restrictions came in 1972 when the legislature passed a law permitting only state residents to be able to purchase a special license to hunt with a handgun. The special Class A-1 license would only cost $5 and was very restrictive. First, any person convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving firearms or explosives was ineligible to purchase this license. The handgun itself couldn’t be larger than .22 caliber, and the barrel had to be at least 4 inches long. When transported in a vehicle, it had to be in a locked compartment not accessible to the occupants of the vehicle. While hunting, it had to be carried in a holster in an unconcealed, easily visible place, and the pistol could only be used to take small game. A few years later, the caliber was enlarged so hunters could hunt large game with handguns.
The big break in the states’ many handgun restrictions came on Nov. 4, 1986, when West Virginia voters approved a state constitutional amendment, by a vote of 342,963 (84 percent) for to 67,168 (16 percent) against, granting all citizens in good standing the right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes. As a result, the State Supreme Court told the state government they would have to rewrite the handgun laws to be in compliance with the new constitutional amendment.
At the present time, any citizen in good standing can carry a handgun unconcealed or openly without having a license to carry in this state. Someone wanting to carry a handgun should have a thorough understanding of West Virginia’s handgun laws.
A few days ago, I was talking with Randolph County Sheriff Jack Roy on this subject. The sheriff made a recommendation that if someone wants to carry a handgun, they would be better off in the long run to get a conceal carry permit.
First of all, carrying a sidearm to be flaunting it or just showing off is simply a good way to end up getting into trouble. West Virginia still has a brandishing law that law enforcement agencies will enforce rigidly.
Application for a license to carry concealed is made to the sheriff at the county where the applicant resides. The application fee is $75. The applicant must be a citizen in good standing, be at least 21 years of age, not an addict or an unlawful user of alcohol or controlled substances. They cannot be adjudged to be mentally incompetent. They must have completed a handgun safety or training course conducted by a handgun instructor certified by the state or the National Rifle Association. Upon completion of the training course, the sheriff shall issue or deny the license within 45 days after the application is filed, if the background checks have been completed. An additional fee of $15 is added when the license is approved and issued. This license under current law has to be renewed in five years.
When someone acquires a license, they should carry it at all times. Failure to have in their possession a conceal carry permit when carrying a concealed firearm could result in a fine of $50 to $200 for each offense.
West Virginia pistol laws have improved, and they are now just about as liberal as Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming. Firearm laws are subject to change and/or court interpretation. The state legislature is now in session, and new changes are now being discussed.
Many thanks to Randolph County Sheriff Jack Roy for providing information to make this week’s column possible.