Last year, West Virginia adopted “constitutional carry” legislation, allowing people to exercise second amendment rights outside their home without having to pay the state a licensing fee or prove they had taken a state-approved class. In late October, The Herald-Register and The Daily Athenaeum published an (identical) article asserting that this led to a "staggering" increase in firearm fatalities.
Fortunately for everyone, this is absolutely not true.
Here is the authoritative list of West Virginia's firearm fatalities, as kept by the state's Health Statistics Center:
Without going into too much detail, it is clear that over the past year, homicides have dropped by 25%, accidental firearm deaths have dropped by 33%, and suicides have dropped by 11%.
It's worth nothing that the number of gun homicides in the entire state never even hit 75, in any year.
But the sheer wrongness of these articles goes far beyond mere statistical error. I almost hesitate to address the problems in detail, but as a writer who is extremely concerned with all civil rights in my community, I begrudgingly do so.
Miniscule Changes, Big Fears
One of the most perplexing things about writers who find constitutional carry in West Virginia so terrifying is that it changed very little at all, other than removing financial barriers for the exercise of a civil liberty.
Gun owners have always been allowed to carry a firearm openly on their person in West Virginia with no permit. This is standard throughout most of the nation (31 states). In fact, over the past three decades, the vast majority of states have dramatically loosened gun regulations while supply and accessibility of firearms skyrocketed. The result:
With every one of those hundreds of legislative changes favoring gun rights, gun control advocates penned articles predicting massive body counts, the streets running with blood, and (my favorite) the old cliché of traffic problems turning into Mad-Max-like shootouts. (The article in question actually included this latter bit.) Over and over again these predictions proved false as the gun homicide rate continued its long, steady decline, but gun control advocates (both in the media and outside of it) didn’t seem to notice.
Nevertheless, you would think West Virginia media might ask itself about the new law:
“Why would people who could openly carry a firearm legally in the first place suddenly start killing other people in their community because they can now wear a jacket or an untucked shirt at the same time?”
This question is never addressed.
Any argument that violent criminals didn’t dare to carry concealed until it was legal is so confused about the nature of both violence and criminality as to be excluded from rational conversation.
The articles in question feature several stories, none of which is linked to the legal concealed carry of a firearm in any way. The opening scene is a perfect example: A police officer arrives at a home on a domestic dispute call and is shot by a resident.
Of course, no one has ever needed a permit to keep a gun inside their home (it is, after all, a civil right equal to freedom of speech and assembly), and the incident has nothing to do with carrying a firearm at all. It also has nothing whatsoever to do with the legislation that the article blames for the shooting, and no explanation of a way that the two might even possibly be connected is attempted.
[After years of writing about representations of guns in the media, I have learned to keep an eye out for this sort of disconnect between fact and policy: either the stories don’t connect to the policies under discussion, or the policies under discussion could never have prevented the events in the story.]
Even if the shooter had not opened fire on a police officer – and had instead been arrested in the most peaceful and cooperative way imaginable – he would have permanently lost his right to own a firearm for the crime of domestic abuse, yet another testament to the “common sense gun laws” that we already have on the books.
“It’s the Training, Stupid”
The first quote from Charleston’s Police Chief Steve Cooper in the articles in question seems to display his concern with accidents rather than aggression: “We’re concerned with what is likely a larger number of people carrying concealed weapons who have no training or experience with those weapons.”
The most basic question that might have been asked of Chief Cooper by anyone researching whether his concern was valid:
How much did accidental firearm deaths rise since the law passed because of this supposed mass of untrained people carrying?
As I have pointed out, we know the answer to this question: Accidents actually dropped even closer to zero – there were two in the entire state.
X-Ray Vision and Other Absurdities
One of the stranger sentences in the articles reads this way: “Before the law passed last year, police were able to stop and question people who were concealing firearms.”
How does that work, exactly? By legal definition, a concealed firearm is hidden from sight. No explanation is offered for this (literally impossible) claim. The authors might have asked Chief Cooper, “How many arrests were initiated by a demand to see a concealed carry permit in the year before the law passed?" but opted not to do so.
The real issue at stake for Chief Cooper is not accidental gun deaths, but an embattled court ruling that gives him the power to search anyone who exercises their second amendment rights outside of their home at any time. I covered this in an article I wrote for the DA titled Do Armed West Virginians Have 4th Amendment Rights?
State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is part of a Supreme Court appeal against Cooper’s pet policy, saying that the law “predicates the exercise of one constitutional right on the surrender of another, a condition this Court has previously found to be unlawful. It also disproportionately burdens certain groups, like women and members of minority communities, that may especially benefit from the right to bear arms but may also be more sensitive to frisks by law enforcement.” I strongly suspect that the legal challenge will succeed.
The article is chock full of familiar statistical claims that seem true, but are wildly simplistic.
Case in point: its assertion that states with tougher gun control laws like California "saw fewer firearm fatalities [per capita] than states with less restrictive laws". If the reader is tempted to believe this might be a relevant fact, observe this map of the concentration of gun homicides in the United States:
As you can see, the most homicidal place in the country is Los Angeles County, and as anyone who has read about gun violence might expect, other gun homicide hotspots are in and adjacent to cities with equally strict gun control measures – D.C. and Chicago, to be specific.
The issue here is that 68% of all gun homicides occur in just 5% of the nation’s counties; more than half occur in just 2% of counties. Those counties are all centralized in urban centers where rates of gun ownership are much lower than the rest of the nation. Even within those hotspot counties, the concentration of homicides is in small areas. These are truly staggering statistics that say more about gun violence on their own than most entire articles on the topic.
So is it accurate to say that California has “fewer firearm fatalities” per capita than some states with relaxed gun laws? Technically, yes. But only because more than 10% of the entire US population lives in the enormous state, which makes its gun homicide per capita average drop considerably. This is convenient for gun control advocates (and journalists who don’t understand the complexities of the issue), but is counterproductive in meaningful discussions about policy.
Be Critical, Please
In summation, I hope West Virginia writers are willing to ask questions that directly investigate the claims of authorities the next time they are emailed a press release. We all make honest errors in reporting (I certainly have), but it is incumbent upon those of us who deign to inform the public that we at least engage in critical analysis, especially when discussing fundamental liberties specifically enumerated in the Bill of Rights.