Posted: October 12, 2017 at 12:53 pm


By Jenna Gilbert, Al-Rasheed Benton and Heather Lee Naples

West Virginia State Trooper David Fry was on duty one evening last March when the call came in: a report of domestic violence at an apartment in Alum Creek, a small town in southwest West Virginia. When Fry arrived at the address, he was shot in the shoulder and wrist, allegedly by Jeremiah Yeager. Fry managed to get back in his car and drove himself 20 minutes away to the Southridge area of Charleston where he was met by paramedics and other officers. He survived the shooting.

Since the passage of a new law that allows gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit, other West Virginians have not been so lucky.  After the permitless concealed carry law went into effect in June 2016, firearm fatalities have risen by nearly 15 percent in the state of West Virginia, according to the Health Statistics Center at the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. The data shows that firearm-related homicides increased by a staggering 39 deaths from May 2016 to May 2017, climbing to a total of 91 homicides.  Since 2007, the  number of homicides per year in West Virginia has averaged about 60, except in 2012, when state officials recorded 82 firearm-related homicides.

Firearm deaths in homicides, suicides and police shootings have increased since West Virginia legislators passed a law in 2016 allowing residents over the age of 21 to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.  Credit: West Virginia Health and Human Resources,

 

Gun-related suicide deaths also increased by two percent after the passage of the concealed carry law. Police shootings increased by 10 percent during the same period, with an overall  total of 341 firearm deaths from May 2016 to May 2017. That includes deaths from homicides, suicides, firearm accidents and police shootings.

West Virginia’s experience is not unique. Across the nation, states that have lax gun safety laws have higher rates of deaths from firearms, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. For example, states with tougher gun safety laws such as Massachusetts,  California and New Jersey saw fewer firearm fatalities than states with less restrictive laws.

Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper is among many law enforcement officials who don’t like the new concealed carry law, which enables any non-felon over the age of 21 to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. Previous to the law’s passage, anyone who wanted to carry a concealed weapon had to obtain training and buy a permit.

“We’re concerned with what is likely a larger number of people carrying concealed weapons who have no training or experience with those weapons,” Cooper said.

Cooper and other law enforcement officers in West Virginia voiced opposition to the concealed carry bill when it was introduced, largely out of concern it would make it easier for drug dealers and other criminals to carry lethal weapons.

“The new law raises a great deal of concern when [officers] are dealing with someone who is likely involved in criminal activity, such as suspected gang members from large cities who have come to Charleston to sell drugs,” Cooper said.

Before the law passed last year, police were able to stop and question people who were concealing firearms. They could legally check if the person carrying was allowed to own a gun and arrest those who were carrying the weapon illegally. In searching for weapons, police often came upon drugs and other illegal paraphernalia, Cooper says.

Advocates for gun control say they don’t find it surprising that West Virginia’s new concealed carry law has spawned an increase in firearm fatalities in the state.

“Untrained, unvetted people are now carrying hidden, loaded guns in public. As a result,  everyday arguments can escalate into shoot-outs,” said Allison Anderman, the managing attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit in San Francisco, California, which analyzes gun violence data from all 50 states.

However, gun rights advocates say that no law would stop people from being irresponsible gun owners.

“People who are irresponsible with firearms, no law will change that,” said Keith Morgan, the president of the West Virginia Citizens Defense League, which authored the new law.

Another problem with the new law is that someone from another state can cross state lines into West Virginia and conceal carry if they want to. However, West Virginia residents cannot go into other states carrying a concealed weapon because reciprocity only covers concealed weapons that are carried with a permit.

Roncie Bohanna of Clarksburg with her daughter, Ayona, in 2010. Bohanna was killed when two men engaged in a gun battle at the bar she was leaving.

West Virginia’s law regarding concealed carrying is not limited to residents,” said Anderman. “So anyone who meets the standards to conceal carry in West Virginia without a permit may do so.”

Roncie Bohanna, a young mother from Clarksburg, may have lost her life because of the new law. She was leaving a bar on the city’s north side around 4 am on April 29 when she was caught in a gun battle between two men. Bohanna left behind two young daughters, ages 7 and 1, who are currently in the care of her parents and brother.

After Bohanna was killed, Michael Hawkins, 37, was arrested and charged with wanton endangerment and attempted murder.

After the shooting of West Virginia State Trooper David Fry, Yeager was charged with attempted murder of a police officer and domestic battery and assault. Bond was set at $2 million cash only and no court date has been set.