The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

February 11, 2013

Pistol Bill and gun control in West Virginia

Guest Column

Dr. John P. David

— Clearly, the Newtown massacre of innocent children, teachers, and parents has once again provided focus to the violent gun issue in this country.

While the NRA desperately sought to refocus the issue on mental health and the media, the bottom line is whether the availability of assault weapons, magazines, and weapons for a militia is necessary for sustaining freedom and the pursuit of happiness, comfort, and security for domestic survival.

Even our political and spiritual leaders are mowed down or wounded, as we have witnessed with Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Malcolm X,  and many others in the civil rights movement. The situation resulted in Ronald Reagan supporting the Brady Bill (since expired) and George W. Bush quitting the NRA.

Few know that West Virginia once was at the forefront in gun control and even fewer know about William S. “Pistol Bill” Johnson who was born in 1871 and grew up on Johnson’s Branch, his family holler, across from the Kincaid Post Office in Fayette County.

Johnson was a Republican Senator in the West Virginia Legislature who also was the Superintendent of Schools in Fayette County and later became West Virginia State Treasurer.

Earlier, he was a Fayette County teacher in Hilltop when a young boy brought a pistol to school and shot a classmate to death. The victim died in Johnson’s arms and was a horror the man never forgot. After entering the Senate, Johnson began pushing a bill that would require all West Virginians to have a license to carry a firearm. It was vehemently opposed but became West Virginia law in 1908.

In 1994, the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS) was awarded a grant from the Claude W. Benedum Foundation to sponsor mini-community development projects in the counties of Fayette, Nicholas, Raleigh, and the Upper Kanawha Valley area of Kanawha.  

In Kincaid, the Public Improvement Council of Kincaid and Upper Page (PICK-UP), led by railroad engineer Kenneth Fox, was funded with a mini-grant and the group decided to erect a monument in honor of local hero “Pistol Bill.” Sculptor Lawrence Terrafranca prepared a granite base and a plaque about Johnson was prepared.

The memorial is still in place in front of the former Page Elementary School, now used by Fayette County Head Start, and is accessible for public viewing.

Pistol Bill’s family property on Johnson’s Branch is now taking on a new life. The Page-Kincaid Public Service District, working with Trout Unlimited and various agencies, is trying to clean up Loup Creek which flows through Kincaid into the Kanawha River.  Within a month, the PSD will seek bids for a wastewater system that will serve the Johnson homeplace and homes of other families on Johnson’s Branch.

Pistol Bill, like Martin Luther King Jr., also had a dream. His dream was for all West Virginians to live a safe and healthy life and live in a safe and healthy environment. His public service career ended as executive secretary of the state’s Crippled Children’s Society. Toward that end, the classroom killing etched his mind and the Kincaid community etched his important contribution to gun control onto a unique monument.  

Furthermore, over a hundred years later, his childhood area now has healthy water and wastewater treatment and the area next to the Hilltop school now has new affordable safe homes built by the Southern Appalachian Labor School, YouthBuild, and the West Virginia Housing Development Fund.

Pistol Bill taught a valuable lesson. As a tribute to this visionary and determined West Virginian, we all need to pay attention and study his lesson again since history is repeating itself.

(David is director of the Southern Appalachian Labor School, and a professor of economics at WVU Tech.)