Everyone involved acknowledges that a Somerset County chiropractor with a permit to carry a firearm was not threatening when he brought a gun into a school on Dec. 14 -- three hours after a shooter massacred pupils and teachers in Newtown, Conn.
But whether criminal charges stick against Charles V. King II, 41, of Rockwood, could hinge less on his behavior than on two words in the state crimes code: "lawful purpose."
Under the definition of one of the charges -- possession of a weapon on school property -- the law allows for a defense if a weapon is used for "a lawful supervised school activity or course or is possessed for other lawful purpose."
Mr. King's attorney argues that the "other lawful purpose" is covered by his client's permit to carry a concealed firearm.
"The ambiguity is what's a lawful purpose, but it's not defined in the crimes code," said lawyer Robert P. Ging Jr., who has not yet seen the complaint against his client. "And if you have a carry permit and it was issued for personal protection, that's a lawful purpose."
Somerset County District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser agrees that the law does not explicitly define legal purpose. But she does not believe that merely having a permit gives a person license to carry a gun into a school -- especially when signs are posted forbidding weapons.
"There is nothing in that statute that permits you to go on school grounds with a weapon whether you have a permit to carry or not. A lawful purpose could be self-defense, but you can't walk in with a gun and say, 'Just in case someone's going to attack me, I'm going to walk in with a gun,' " Ms. Lazzari-Strasiser said.
"Here's the thing -- a lawful purpose to me is that if something happens like Columbine or Connecticut, and you go on school property reacting to that as a citizen, you happen to live a block away, and you go there with a weapon in self-defense or in defense of others, that's the other lawful purpose. But that comes after the fact. That's a defense. That's not an exemption or a waiver."
Mr. King's predicament began when he walked into the office of Turkeyfoot Valley Area School District in Lower Turkeyfoot around 12:45 p.m. Dec. 14 with a Sig Sauer pistol in his back pants pocket.
"It's unfortunate that sometimes life's stupid little mistakes can cause big problems for you," Mr. Ging said of his client.
Mr. King was there to pick up a high school boy he mentors. Authorities say the chiropractor did not draw or brandish the gun or make any threatening gestures or remarks.
"Another parent saw it and said, 'Hey, you know you have that there?' And he said, just putting their mind at ease, he said, 'I have a permit to carry.' Then he said to the staff there, 'I have a permit to carry. I have this here [gun]," said Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. William Link. "He said, 'You guys have to get some metal detectors here.' "
Cpl. Link said at the time neither Mr. King nor the school staff was aware of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. But later, when the information was widespread, the school administration sought a clarification of the law.
"The school contacted us afterwards and they weren't even really concerned about it at the time. They were just saying, 'Where do we stand here with people with permits?' " Cpl. Link said. "Then, of course, that was the same day as the Connecticut incident. So it drew a lot of attention."
Mr. King cooperated. Police pulled school surveillance videotape and conducted interviews. And the district attorney and investigators conferred.
"We had a lot of open-table discussions about what to do because you certainly don't want to restrict someone's right to bear arms," Ms. Lazzari-Strasiser said. "But then again, I see it as black and white. I didn't see an issue. To me, it was a violation of the statute without question."
Another factor, Ms. Lazzari-Strasiser said, was that Mr. King had the gun in a place where she believes it would be difficult to go unnoticed by him.
"That's hard for me to swallow, too, when it's in your back pocket, not holstered. You can't just ignore the weight of a gun," she said. "I don't know what the guy was thinking."
Police also charged Mr. King with criminal trespass for violating signs in the building prohibiting weapons.
Mr. Ging said a sign has no "legal meaning."
Mr. King, who is being charged through the mail, has a preliminary hearing scheduled March 12.
Jonathan D. Silver: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1962.