Posted: February 22, 2013 at 8:19 pm

By: David Perry, Sarah Cordonier and Katherine Heath

Jeron Hawkins, a 19-year-old Charleston resident, had no idea that bringing a gun into a Morgantown nightclub in September 2011 would cost him his life. Hawkins got into an argument with another man at Karma, a club on High Street, and when the argument spilled out into the street, Hawkins pulled his gun, killing 28-year-old Lucas Lee and wounding his two companions. Hawkins was convicted of murder last fall and sentenced to life in prison. While waiting a transfer to another facility, he was killed by another inmate.

The Hawkins tragedy is only one of an increasing number of violent incidents involving firearms in West Virginia. Rates of gun violence in the state have soared over the last couple years, jumping 60 percent between 2010 and 2011 alone, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.  In fact, murders and aggravated assaults that involved firearms reached a five-year high in the state of West Virginia in 2011. The murder rate in West Virginia from firearms stands at 2.86 per 100,000 people, above the national average of 2.7.

Data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports show that murders committed with firearms rose to a five-year high during 2011.

Data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports show that murders committed with firearms rose to a five-year high in 2011.

Researchers attribute the high rate of gun violence to the state’s legacy of hunting, long-engrained cultural attitudes that support gun ownership, and the dearth of state regulations governing who can buy a gun in West Virginia. Some also blame poverty in West Virginia.

“When people are generally poor, they don’t settle disputes in the criminal justice system,” says James Nolan, a professor of  sociology at West Virginia University.  “They go after each other with a vengeance, and with the availability of guns, that create more gun violence.”

West Virginia requires no restrictions or permits to purchase a gun if the buyer is over the age of 18. Unless someone is a convicted felon or has been hospitalized for mental illness, there are no requirements for license or registration on guns. And gun owners are allowed to openly carry firearms without a permit. And although the private sales of handguns do not require background checks,  selling guns to people who have felony convictions or are mentally ill is illegal.

The Brady Center, a pro-gun legislation group, gave West Virginia a rating of only four out of 100 on its annual scorecard of how stringently each state controls the purchase of guns. As a result of such lax regulations, the number of homicides involving firearms jumped from 27 to 43 from 2010 to 2011, while the number of aggravated assaults with firearms increased from 339 to 780, representing an increase of over 130 percent, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report.

After President Obama announced plans to pass tighter gun control laws in the wake of the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, gun and ammunition sales actually increased in West Virginia. Yet national legislation (if it did get passed) would most likely only cover assault weapons and have no impact on purchases of hunting rifles and handguns. Nolan says that the spike in sales can be attributed to the conservative media’s propagandizing that the government is coming for people’s guns. “Even though the government may not be thinking that at all, that doesn’t mean it’s not real in the mind of the people,” Nolan says.

Since the election, “our sales have been up 40 percent or better,” says Bill Cummings, co-owner of Marstiller’s Gun Shop in Morgantown.

An applicant for a concealed carry permit displays his handgun during a gun safety training course.

An applicant for a concealed carry permit displays his handgun during a gun safety training course.

In the absence of legislated gun control in West Virginia,  police say there may be some interim solutions to the problem of gun violence. In the city of Wilmington, Delaware, for instance, the new mayor and police chief are planning to crack down on the 100 worst offenders of gun laws in the city. They plan to do this by identifying the largest illegal gun sellers in the city, putting them on surveillance and prosecuting violations of the law.  They are also planning to increase police involvement in low-income areas so that residents don’t feel the need to settle disputes among themselves and try to get at-risk youth away from gangs and into school, church and sports programs, Nolan says.

Nolan says he believes that such measures could be adopted in West Virginia too.

“They’re trying to re-establish informal controls,” Nolan says. “If the people in these areas feel like the police are there to help them, they’ll be more likely to come to them when arguments come up.”