As the end of the 2016 West Virginia legislative session approached, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin hosted a press conference in front of an audience of law enforcement officers from around the state.
They applauded as the governor vetoed House Bill 4145, a proposal to allow adults to carry a hidden gun without a permit.
“This is just bad law,” said Steve Tanner, then-president of the West Virginia Sheriffs’ Association. “It endangers law enforcement and endangers the public.”
But state lawmakers were determined to pass the law. Just one day after Tomblin’s press conference and one floor above his office in the state Capitol, delegates gathered on the House floor, overrode the veto and sent it to the Senate.
The following day, Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, called on his colleagues to follow the House’s lead in passing the bill.
“This piece of legislation, mark my word, as the years go on, it’s going to be proven to be an effective deterrent to crime,” he said.
Blair succeeded at encouraging the other state lawmakers to override the veto. Now the state senate president, he was lauded by the National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm for his work on the bill later that year.
But in the months and years after the law was enacted, more West Virginians died from guns. A study, conducted by West Virginia University researchers and published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that firearm deaths were about 26% more frequent in the state after legislators passed HB 4145.
Corey Palumbo, a former Democratic state senator from Kanawha County who criticized lawmakers for not heeding the advice of law enforcement in 2016, said he was unsurprised to learn gun deaths had increased.
“This is something that you could have foreseen at the time,” Palumbo said. “When you put more guns in more places, you’re going to have more accidents and more gun casualties as a result.”
“The most important driver of gun violence”
Among U.S. states, West Virginia has one of the higher rates of gun deaths. While the majority are suicides, the WVU researchers highlighted alarming increases in other types of firearm deaths as well.
When comparing West Virginia’s firearm death rate between the 17 years prior to the law and five years after, the study found gun homicides in the state increased by nearly 48%. Gun fatalities among females and African Americans in the state also rose significantly.
The researchers also compared West Virginia’s firearm death rate before and after the law to the U.S. as a whole. As West Virginia’s rate rose, the country’s deaths remained steady.
When the 2016 law was going through the legislative process, some lawmakers said it wouldn’t have a large impact on safety. Others went even further.
Saira Blair, then a Republican delegate from Berkeley County and the bill’s lead sponsor, argued in an op-ed that it would improve safety for West Virginians, especially young adults and women. The bill allowed those over 21 to carry without a permit and those between the ages of 18 and 21 to apply for a concealed carry permit.
Saira Blair, whose father is Craig Blair, was elected as the youngest state lawmaker in the nation and decided not to run again after two terms. She did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In an email, Craig Blair said he remained proud of this and other state laws he helped pass to expand gun access. He said West Virginia’s overdose crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic could be possible drivers of the rise in gun deaths.
“I have reviewed this study, and I believe like many studies, the data presented can be done so in a way to tell a story that it wants to tell,” Blair wrote in the email.
But Gordon Smith, professor at the WVU School of Public Health and the senior author of the paper, said they accounted for both factors.
When the researchers excluded 2020 from their analysis, there was still a significant rise in West Virginia deaths, according to Smith. And from 2005 to 2015, as the pharmaceutical industry supply chain flooded West Virginia with prescription opiates, the state’s deadly shooting rate didn’t change much.
Smith acknowledged that there could be a different driving force that he and the other scientists didn’t consider for West Virginia’s rise in homicides. But he said the relationship to the rise in gun violence after the 2016 West Virginia law is similar to what other states that legalized permitless concealed carry experienced after their laws passed.
“We build a case,” Smith said. “That if you make guns more available, then people are more likely in explosive situations to pull out a gun and shoot somebody.”
Cassandra Crifasi, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, said it’s common for lawmakers to point to causes like drug use when trying to explain rises in gun violence.
“Drugs, crime, violence, gangs,” Crifasi said. “It is always the first go-to to distract away from the thing that is the most important driver of gun violence, which is easy access to guns.”
Smith and the other authors of the WVU study warned that other recently passed state laws may also contribute to more gun-related homicides in the future. Specifically, they cite a law passed earlier this year allowing concealed carry on the campuses of public universities and colleges in West Virginia.
Adam Crawford, secretary for the West Virginia Deputy Sheriffs’ Association and a sheriff of nearly 16 years, said he remembers when the law was being made. His father, a long-time law enforcement officer in the state, spoke against the bill before Tomblin vetoed it in 2016.
Crawford said the rise in gun deaths after the law passed makes sense to him. He said that without a mandatory permit system, it’s easier for people to access guns.
“Any time there’s a gun brought into play, it creates another level of danger,” he said. “Regardless of if there was any intent to use it or not.”