HUNTINGTON -- Julie Callicoat never had an issue with guns until a bullet from a stolen .22-caliber pistol changed everything in September 2003.
The gunman legally purchased the once-stolen pistol from a pawn shop and used it to shoot Callicoat's daughter, his girlfriend at the time. The now 30-year-old victim survived, but remains a quadriplegic five years later.
The gunman, who had prior arrests with at least one misdemeanor conviction, entered a plea that led to a conviction for attempted murder. He remains in prison. Callicoat believes stronger gun laws may have prevented him from obtaining a weapon.
"I used to be a happy person, but I'm not anymore," she said. "This whole thing has been a nightmare."
Federal agents refer to West Virginia as a source state for firearms, which means guns purchased, stolen or acquired in West Virginia are often recovered by police in other states. One gun-control group analyzed the data and determined West Virginia was the nation's top exporter of firearms in 2007, based upon population.
Gun-control advocates blame that on relaxed gun laws, which attract criminals from states with tougher restrictions.
Gun-rights supporters say they believe new laws infringe upon the rights of the innocent and do little to reduce crime because criminals find other ways to obtain weapons.
Either way, West Virginia guns that go to other states contribute to crime in other places and here, because criminals are drawn to the area to acquire the weapons. Police spoke of more burglaries in the Tri-State, while the weapons lead to violent, sometimes deadly, disputes here and elsewhere. Local gun crime reached such a level that federal agents formed a task force last year, and it is making arrests.
The Brady Campaign, a well-known gun-control advocacy group, distributes a scorecard each year gauging the strength of state gun laws. West Virginia continually ranks near the bottom of the list. This year it scored four points out of 100, placing it two points ahead of last-place finishers Kentucky, Louisiana and Oklahoma in the Brady Campaign's rankings.
Brady spokesman Doug Pennington said weak gun laws affect a much broader audience. He said gun laws in 40 states do next to nothing and 38 states, including Ohio, scored below the 20-point threshold, which Brady considers to be a poor score. He described his group's proposals as compromise legislation that would reduce gun trafficking without infringing upon the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Gun-rights supporters strongly disagree.
"It shouldn't be treated as the rocket science as apparently a lot of elected officials want to treat it like," Pennington said. "We regulate automobiles to infinity and beyond, but there were 10,000 gun homicides in 2007, according to the FBI. ... That's exactly what firearms are designed to do. They're designed to kill things, but for some reason we are squeamish."
The National Rifle Association is Brady's chief opponent. The gun-rights group points to the large number of violent crime in states where tougher gun laws exist, such as California, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
West Virginia State Trooper Rusty Reed investigates gun crimes as the leader of the state's gun lab. He also is a federally licensed firearms dealer and member of the NRA. He analyzes evidence from violent gun crimes everyday, but sees no reason for the state to adopt proposals put forth by gun-control groups, such as the Brady Campaign.
"In my 22 years (at the West Virginia State Police), I've seen a lot of things that are disheartening," he said. "If I thought there was one law that would fix all of the problems, I would certainly be behind it."
Criticism from gun-control groups does little to move West Virginia legislators. About six gun-control bills were introduced during the during the 60-day legislative session that concluded April 11. Zero passed.
The nation's top source state
More guns left West Virginia's borders, per capita, than any other state in the nation during 2007, according to the Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The gun-control group based its information upon trace data reports from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The ATF would not confirm the Mountain State's ranking, but Resident Agents in Charge Paul Cross and Bernie Teyssier said their agency does consider West Virginia to be a source state supplying firearms to people living in areas with tougher gun laws. The designation is based upon data compiled by the ATF, whose agents trace firearms to their state of purchase.
"Guns are traced here all the time," Cross said.
Teyssier, whose field office covers portions of West Virginia and Kentucky, said the two states are very similar. Both states ranked in the top five for highest export rates, according to the Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Cabell County Sheriff Tom McComas and Chief Deputy Doug Ferguson offered possible reasons for West Virginia's distinction. McComas, an avid outdoorsman himself, said the state's heritage includes hunting and firearm collecting. Ferguson said its proximity to major metropolitan areas increases its popularity with out-of-state criminals.
Regardless of the reasoning, Pennington said West Virginia should be ashamed of its distinction. He believes it is better to live in a tough gun-law state, where criminals are forced to look elsewhere for firearms.
"You don't want to be the source state for the country's firearms. That's awful," he said. "West Virginia is responsible, disproportionally, for gun murders, gun robberies and gun assaults because it is supplying weapons to criminals that they otherwise wouldn't be able to get."
The local gun trade offensive
Huntington Police Lt. J.T. Combs sees gun trafficking at the street level as a member of the ATF's River City Gun Crimes Task Force. He said guns leave West Virginia every day from Cabell and Wayne counties.
Combs, Teyssier and Cross all link the flow of guns to drugs. The dealers are attracted by lucrative profits at both ends. Crack cocaine and other drugs sold in the Tri-State bring a large profit, while guns sell for high prices in states such as Michigan.
"A gun is as good as money because these drug dealers love them," Combs said. "They will take a gun over jewelry. It's just something easy to move."
The constant demand for firearms in those states can prompt dealers to commit local crimes to obtain weapons. Combs said some drug dealers convince addicts to buy guns on their behalf, thus violating federal law. Some weapons are stolen, while others are traded for drugs.
Once the weapons fall into the dealers' hands, other crimes can occur. Combs said turf wars and disagreements over drug debts can prompt shootings.
Many times the violence occurs in Huntington. Combs said the guns funnel into the city, which serves as the hub for drug activity for a 50-mile radius.
Teyssier said the ATF was so concerned about the level of violence and number of firearms recovered in and around Huntington that the agency started the Task Force.
"We certainly want to try to help Cabell County and Huntington reduce the flow of firearms from this area to market areas," he said. "Every time a gun out of Huntington is recovered in another city the question is asked, 'Why is it coming from there?"
Combs and Teyssier said the burglary cases, an easy but illegal way to obtain weapons, are of particular concern of their potentially violent nature. Teyssier said the Task Force reviews burglary reports filed by local police departments.
The examples are plentiful, and not every case involves drugs. Police say gun theft motivated the shooting death of Huntington minister Mark McCalla at a shooting range last summer. Police arrested U.S. Army Spc. Daniel Smith and Stephen Wilson. The defendants sold some of the guns in Newport News, Va., according to court testimony. The ATF continues to search for some guns in the McCalla case, Teyssier said.
Two defendants were indicted by a federal grand jury last month.
James Paul Blake, 22, of Huntington was charged with possessing three stolen firearms and doing so while he was addicted to a controlled substance. The incident occurred Oct. 8, 2008, in Huntington, according to the indictment.
Jonathan Luke Ross, 23, of Barboursville was charged with being a convicted felon in possession of firearms and stealing the guns from a licensed firearms dealer. It was linked to a July 2008 theft at Sam's Gun & Pawn in Wayne County.
Teyssier said those indictments indicate the year-old Task Force is starting to make an impact. Each case involves a meticulous investigation that can last upward of a year. The investigations involve locating the original owner and determining the gun's next stop. Many times a crime gun will pass through many hands between the initial purchase and recovery.
Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook said he has witnessed no greater presence or availability of guns in Huntington than other cities he has worked, but he said the Task Force's presence boosts law enforcement efforts.
"We felt like there was a need for maybe working the case beyond the seizure of the gun," he said