Plenty of W.Va. delegates are packing heat
CHARLESTON (AP) – The man sitting outside Kelli Sobonya’s open house for an hour made her uneasy.
He waited until the showing of the vacant home in Milton was over before coming to the door.
Sobonya, a Realtor and Republican state legislator from Cabell County, was alone.
“He said he wanted to go see the house and asked if there’s a basement and if I could show it to him,” Sobonya said. “I said no, you can find it yourself.”
After looking in the home briefly, Sobonya said, the man left. He declined to take any paperwork about the house with him but told her he would keep the business card with her picture on it.
That’s one reason Sobonya decided to carry a gun.
An incident involving Sobonya and her gun recently raised a few eyebrows. It happened in Wheeling on June 19. A column in the Sunday Gazette-Mail described Sobonya dropping her purse after having her picture taken with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
When the purse dropped, her gun was exposed.
Sobonya says the story was exaggerated – Tomblin’s security detail never asked her about the weapon, as the column stated – and she repeatedly said it’s not that big of a deal.
She said she had wedged her small gold leather wristlet between her knee and the desk where the governor was seated. The governor moved, the open wristlet slipped and fell, and the governor could see her .32-caliber handgun.
“I looked at him, he looked at me. I made a joke, he made a joke,” Sobonya said.
“I said, ‘Hey, governor, you don’t have to worry; I have my permit,’ ” she added.
She was referring to her permit to carry a concealed weapon.
In a state enamored with firearms and the Second Amendment, Sobonya is not the only lawmaker legally packing heat.
Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, recalled a meeting of the Roads and Transportation Committee during the regular legislative session this past winter.
The committee was discussing a bill that would allow lawmakers to leave their guns in their cars parked on Capitol grounds.
Chairwoman Margaret Staggers asked committee members to raise their hands if they had a concealed carry permit. Butler – a five-year permit holder who occasionally totes a .357 handgun – raised his hand.
So did 18 or 20 other delegates on the 25 member committee, he said.
“Which you wouldn’t think of as a real redneck, hillbilly committee,” Staggers, D-Fayette, said, laughing.
She said she earned a perfect score when she passed the concealed carry permit test 20 years ago. She beat her husband, who took the test at the same time.
“Living in southern West Virginia, it would be assumed that you would have a permit to carry and that you would,” Staggers said. “I think that that’s more cultural than anything else.”
Staggers said before serving for decades in Congress, her father, Harley Staggers, was a sheriff. He told his daughters if they were to pull a gun and point it at someone, they should do it with deadly intent.
That’s not all he taught them. Raised on a 500-acre farm, Staggers and her sisters also took target practice with .22-caliber guns. While riding horses.
“The four Staggers girls are pretty good shots,” she said.
An emergency room doctor for years, Staggers said she carried her gun because she had to travel alone to work at night. She’s never had to use her gun for protection, but there have been threats made against her both as a doctor and as a lawmaker.
The Capitol police investigated one claim, found the person who made the threat and encouraged that person not to go through with it, Staggers said.
Delegate Mark Hunt, D-Kanawha, remembers being threatened during his early years in the House of Delegates over a bill regarding new policies for ophthalmologists and optometrists. He thinks plenty of people in the House have been threatened and just as many carry guns.
“Frankly, a lot of the members in the House are over 50, they’re retired and they can’t be taking a beating from a 25-year-old guy because they have to wear a seatbelt,” Hunt said.
Hunt has a permit, but he said he obtained it only to see whether the permitting process is working well. He said it is not.
Sobonya and Butler said people don’t know where they legally can and can’t take their guns.
Hunt ran into that issue firsthand in 2004.
He left a .38 revolver in a bag he tried to check before boarding a plane to Florida.
Hunt said recently that the incident became a “tempest in a teapot” but admitted it was a “bonehead thing” to do.
He said he doesn’t carry a gun but believes many delegates fear somebody upset about something could take aim in the Capitol.
“We live in a very dangerous world in a very dangerous environment, and we do not have adequate security in either the House or the Senate,” Hunt said.
He specifically mentioned the viewing galleries in both chambers.
“I think that we’re all concerned that someday somebody’s going to come in there and spray us all.”
He’s not the first to express those fears publicly. Several lawmakers have introduced bills to make it legal for people with concealed carry permits to bring their guns into the Capitol.
Sen. Dan Hall, D-Oceana, sponsored such a bill this year.
“How do you know there’s not 100 guns in this building right now? That’s the whole point with this, you know? I guarantee you there are numerous firearms in this building right now,” Hall told the Daily Mail in April.
House Majority Whip and United Mine Workers union officer Mike Caputo said he received death threats following actions on a bill related to coal. The Marion County Democrat said that’s part of the gig, and elected officials have to take it in stride.
Caputo – who has a concealed carry permit but doesn’t own a gun – said safety for delegates while they’re in the House chambers is a top concern for leadership.
Delegate Danny Wells, D-Kanawha, would rather see metal detectors installed than let guns into the building.
A proud gun-control advocate, Wells was the only person in Staggers’ committee not to vote in favor of the bill allowing lawmakers to leave their guns in cars parked on Capitol grounds. He said more people carrying guns doesn’t increase safety; it increases the chances that someone will be shot.
He has seen Sobonya’s gun – she showed it to him at a restaurant once when he asked to see it – and he understands why someone would want a gun if they felt threatened. However, Wells said Sobonya should have known she would be safe when she was with the governor.
“I have a problem with carrying guns. I’m for strong gun control measures, and I’m totally embarrassed by the delegate in this case having a gun in a public building where there is already security,” Wells said.
Sobonya said she carried the gun in Wheeling because she heard local neighborhoods were unsafe.
She used to sit next to Wells on the House floor. Wells said they used to talk about gun-related issues. Sobonya said he teased her about her gun. Jokingly, she questioned whether Wells knew what a gun looked like.
Republican legislators Amanda Pasdon and Eric Householder said they don’t feel threatened in the Capitol. Both have concealed carry permits but for different reasons.
Pasdon, from Monongalia County, said she carries her LC9 handgun for extra protection when she’s on the road by herself.
Householder said he just likes exercising the right to carry a gun. He prefers a .380-caliber handgun when he carries. It’s not as bulky as his .40-caliber Smith and Wesson.
He has never used the gun and forgets to carry it at times.
That doesn’t mean he or any other delegate wouldn’t.
“You just never know,” Householder said.