MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A constitutional carry bill – a measure to allow carrying concealed weapons without a permit – is expected to sail through the state legislature when the 2016 session gets under way Wednesday.
West Virginia Citizens Defense League Vice President Art Thomm made that prediction to an overflow crowd Sunday afternoon when area supporters gathered for the nonpartisan group’s annual pre-legislative meeting.
But whether Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will sign the bill into law is still up for debate, he said.
Under provisions of the bill, state residents 21 or older would be allowed to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. Currently, a state resident can openly carry a gun but only after obtaining a permit to carry a concealed pistol or revolver. The permitting process requires passing a criminal background check, successfully completing a training course and paying a permit fee, Thomm told approximately 60 supporters who’d gathered at Hoss’s Steak and Sea House for the session.
“In it’s most simplistic form, constitutional carry in the state of West Virginia will decriminalize wearing a coat and that’s it,” he said.
Lots of planning has already gone into facilitating this year’s legislative action, Tomm said.
“Things are expected to go very fast from here on out. So when you are talking about a timeline for this bill, we are expecting it to go through literally in the first two weeks. And then it will hit the governor’s desk, where I expect a veto or he may let it ride until it becomes law,” said Thomm, who is in Charleston today meeting with top Senate and House of Delegates’ officials.
“It’s an exciting time because it expands the rights of West Virginia gun owners,” he said.
After citing Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, as an important supporter – Blair also co-sponsored a similar bill in 2015 that was vetoed by Tomblin – Thomm advised group members to observe the “politics of this situation” and consider them before voting in the May primary election.
Timing is important because last year’s bill – which passed the House by a vote of 71-29 and the Senate by a 32-2 vote – was vetoed in March, and that was too late for the legislature to override it, he said.
“The bill is being submitted through the Senate, and the president is going to push it out to the House – where they will pass it and get it on the governor’s desk. If Tomblin vetoes this bill, the Senate president then has the option to pull this bill back because it is so important to gun owners in West Virginia. He could then bring it back to override and then only a simple majority would be needed,” Thomm said, adding that Democrats, Independents and Republicans had supported last year’s bill.
“Just because we don’t agree on everything doesn’t mean that a lot of those folks don’t come together for your constitutional right to protect yourself,” he said.
However, the West Virginia Sheriff’s Association continues to oppose the bill, Thomm said.
WVCDL member David Quela, who now lives in Jefferson County, said he values his right to carry a gun even more after having been seriously injured during a random attack at a fair when he lived just outside Chicago.
Quela said he was a victim of a beating that landed him the hospital for about a week and required facial reconstruction.
“We have to have the same upper hand as our attackers -that’s only right. But at that time in Illinois, you could own a gun if you had the state-required card but it had to stay at home. You couldn’t carry the gun, because there was no concealed carry at all,” he said.
Fellow member and gun owner Charles Horst said he is proud of the organization’s dramatic growth since its inception in 2007.
“We are all volunteers who care very much about gun rights, and that is what makes us so powerful. And the sheer energy of our group really grabs the legislators’ attention,” Horst said, adding that he also has “great concerns about what is happening at the federal level with the Obama administration and the Second Amendment.
Horst and others routinely go to Charleston during the legislative session which he said helps account for legislators’ being impressed with the “sea of black” WVCDL shirts that often dominate the state capitol’s viewing galleries.
Hundreds of members are expected to participate in the annual lobby day set for Feb. 16, he said.
Staff writer Jenni Vincent can be reached at 304-263-8931, ext. 131, or www.twitter.com/jennivincentwv.