CHESTER - A bill pending in the West Virginia Legislature would give non-hunters more latitude to carry a legal firearm in the woods without being questioned by authorities.
Del. Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, said he introduced House Bill 4431 after a Hancock County constituent complained about being asked for his hunting license because he was out in the woods with a gun.
"If a person wishes to take a walk in the woods and carry his or her gun for protection, he or she should not have to obtain a hunting license to justify it," Swartzmiller said in his weekly update to constituents. "West Virginia has an open-carry policy; therefore, an individual should not be restricted from carrying freely."
Swartzmiller said the bill, which passed a second reading on Wednesday and comes up for a full House vote today, would close a gap in the gun rights of West Virginians - although he acknowledged in an interview that it's "not a huge problem."
A statement from the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action said Swartzmiller's bill would clarify the distinction between hunters and shooters in the field and would allow shooters in or near the woods to be "protected from unnecessary interference by a Department of Natural Resources officer based solely on possession of a firearm."
HB 4431 would require a West Virginia DNR officer to have secondary evidence that someone carrying a firearm in the woods is actually hunting before asking to see a hunting license. Such secondary evidence could be anything from harvested game to hunting equipment, according to the bill.
Swartzmiller said he drafted the legislation in consultation with DNR officials and has their support. "They said they realize it's kind of a gray area in the law," he said.
Swartzmiller, who describes himself as "110 percent pro-gun" and has a concealed-carry permit, has received a 92 percent rating from the NRA, according to Project Vote Smart (VoteSmart.org).
"We just want to make sure citizens' Second Amendment rights are being protected. ... This just puts clarity in the law," Swartzmiller said. "If it's something that somebody's asked me about, that's something I'm going to work on."
Swartzmiller said he expects the bill to pass unanimously in the House, based on the fact that it passed unanimously in the House Judiciary Committee last week. It will then go to the Senate.