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Martinsburg City Council bans guns in city-owned buildings

August 15, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. -- By a 5-1 vote, the Martinsburg City Council on Thursday adopted an amended version of an ordinance that prohibits individuals from carrying a firearm or other deadly weapon in any building that is city-owned, leased or under the municipality's control.

In addition to City Hall, the restriction applies to the historic Market House building, the city's train station and buildings in parks deeded to the city.

The amendment to the ordinance only exempted the gun carrying restriction from being enforced "on any public property," to avoid any confusion about being applied to sidewalks and streets. But opponents argued the ordinance, which was originally adopted in March 2005, should be removed the from the books.

Councilman-At-Large Rodney Woods cast the lone vote against adopting the ordinance. He said afterward that he felt the restriction shouldn't apply to the Market House building, which houses a restaurant and other nongovernment tenants.

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"I'm not opposed to the ordinance as I am opposed to how it could apply," said Woods, adding that the opponents made a number of a good points. Yet, Woods also said he felt city leaders should be afforded the same right to restrict firearms from City Hall as is allowed at Berkeley County's judicial center.

Mayor George Karos was out of town on business Thursday night, said Counciman-At-Large Gregg Wachtel, who did not vote because he was appointed to preside in the mayor's absence.

The council's vote came after several gun-rights advocates told council members the city was precluded from adopting such an ordinance, which many opponents said would do nothing but stop law-abiding citizens from protecting themselves and not stop others intent on breaking the law.

"This ordinance is in direct conflict and violation of current West Virginia statutes," said Jordan A. Austin, a National Rifle Association lobbyist from northern Virginia.

Austin cited a 1999 "pre-emption" law passed by state lawmakers, and quoted a section of the code that he said gives the state Legislature the sole authority to adopt firearm regulations.

"It was very clear in what they were doing," Austin said.

City Attorney Floyd McKinley "Ken" Sayre agreed that the 1999 state law restricted cities from prohibiting firearms from being carried on streets and sidewalks, but cited another section of state code that gives the right of a property owner, including a municipality, to prohibit guns from being carried into Martinsburg's buildings.

Austin said the section of code that Sayre cited was being "exploited," and gave every indication that any loophole would be closed by new legislation.

Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, said lawmakers passed the pre-emption law to prevent cities from adopting varying firearm rules and regulations.

"I think it was our intent to not allow cities to impose the restrictions such as what you are considering," Overington said before the council voted. "And if we didn't do our job, it's something that we can correct."

Overington cited a scenario where people who might want to eat at the Market House building on the way to the bank to make a deposit would be violating the ordinance if carrying a gun.

"We are not surprised by the action this evening," said Jim Mullins, president of the West Virginia Citizens Defense League Inc.

"Needless to say, that the city's ongoing defiance of the state's pre-emption law, however they want to justify it, is not going to be tolerated," said Mullins, predicting the ordinance would be repealed or vacated by legislation that has yet to be adopted.

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