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By Emily Davis and Rose Hoban

On the tail end of their summer vacation, instead of hitting the beach, three North Carolina high school students paced the halls of the state’s legislative office building. Darshan Raj, Lauren Smith and Gianna Gregory arrived at the legislature Tuesday morning as advocates for a parliamentary procedure that would put two gun violence prevention bills held up in committees onto the floor of the House of Representatives for debate.

Darshan Raj, Lauren Smith and Gianna Gregory were visiting legislators at the General Assembly to ask for movement on House Bills 454 and 86. Photo credit: Rose Hoban.

Smith, a high school senior from Holly Springs who helped organize Raleigh’s March For Our Lives, named the past week’s events in El Paso, Dayton and Chicago as adding to the importance of their cause.

“We also have gun violence every day here in North Carolina that barely makes the news,” she said.

Raj, a 17-year-old senior at Research Triangle High School, expressed the students’ interest in speaking lawmakers about House Bill 454, which would create extreme risk protective orders. The bill is one of the two that are held up in committee.

Despite the fresh faces, the day’s events at the General Assembly bore a sense of deja vu, as Democratic lawmakers lined up behind the podium of the legislative press conference room to decry the latest outburst of mass gun violence that occurred this weekend in Ohio and Texas.

Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), a former district court judge, advocated for House Bill 454, which she originally presnted in March. The bill would create “extreme risk protection orders,” (known as ERPOs) a way to temporarily confiscate the firearms of someone whose behavior indicates they are in danger of committing violence.

These are the same types of orders recently endorsed by President Donald Trump.

“We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms, and that if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process,” Trump told the nation in an address on Monday morning.

The other bill, House Bill 86, would enact an array of restrictions on bump stocks and the size of ammunition magazines and enact a three-day waiting period for gun purchases. Taken together, the two bills represent a new approach in curbing firearm violence in the U.S. For decades, gun control advocates have been stymied in their efforts to reduce the number of firearms nationwide. However, in recent years, advocates have looked at gun violence in a new way — through the lens of public health.

“This is not a partisan issue. This is a public health emergency,” Morey told the press conference.

Research shows suicide reductions

First enacted in Connecticut in 1999, some form of the ERPO measure proposed by Morey is now being used in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Since the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 students and teachers in 2017, that number has jumped from only five states to 17.

Drew Pescaro shows where a bullet entered his body when he was injured during a shooting incident at UNC Charlotte in April that killed two of his classmates. “I can’t help but feel as if the deaths of Riley Howell and Reed Parlier at UNC Charlotte weren’t memorable enough to bring this bill to vote three months ago,” Pescaro said. “House bill 86 has been in circulation since February 14, 2019, yet this press conference is being held six months later. Was the shooting at Charlotte not inspiring enough to allow those then?”

While many hope ERPOs can reduce the incidence of mass shootings, Duke University researcher Jeffrey Swanson has studied the effect of ERPOs on suicide rates in the first few states where they were enacted. He found that for every 10 to 20 guns taken and held by law enforcement, one suicide is prevented.

“If we could have stopped every single mass shooting since year 2000, we could have saved, you know, 500 lives. If we could have stopped all the gun suicides, we would save 300,000 lives,” he said.

With limited data, Swanson said it’s been harder to show ERPOs effects on mass violence, but they could provide a tool for someone who feels threatened. He cited the example of Craig Stephen Hicks, who killed three Muslim students in Chapel Hill in 2015.

“If you’re, you know, Craig Stephen Hicks’ neighbor, and you’re afraid of him, and you just see that he’s a scary guy, and he’s menacing and he’s got 12 or 13 guns … if you live in a state with the law, there’s something you can do to reach out to law enforcement,” Swanson said. “He doesn’t have to be criminally accused, he doesn’t have to be incompetent.”

Many states already have laws curtailing the ability for someone who had psychiatric problems in the past from owning firearms. Swanson pointed out that many of the perpetrators of mass shootings have not had mental health histories before acting out and never would have been flagged by those existing laws.

“There are tons of people who really are angry and impulsively so,” he said. “One of these alienated, isolated, resentful, angry, aggrieved young men who is marinating in hate in the echo chamber of … this closed-circuit social media group and that person, you know, they pass a background check.”

Research ramping up slowly  

In 1996, the World Health Organization led the way by designating firearm violence as a major public health issue. In the same year, Congress cut the budget for gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and outlawed federal funding for gun control. But in the wake of mass shooting events, Congress lifted the ban, theoretically allowing for federal funding to go to researchers to track gun violence and study ways to prevent or reduce it.

But that’s not always adequate.

“The CDC is full of people who would like to do more and would like to spend more [but,] in the current political environment, they’re really reluctant to stick their neck out, still,” said Swanson. “There is no law on the books or any statutory impediment to CDC funds being spent to study the causes and consequences of gun violence. But if they advertise that they’re going to do this … they can’t get the money appropriated for it.

“If they try, they’re worried that, you know, the congressional scrutiny is going to come down on their head, and it’ll have adverse consequences.”

So, even with loosened Congressional purse strings, ramping up the research has been slow.

“The lack of public investment in gun safety research has left us willfully ignorant about many aspects of gun violence in the United States and the most effective interventions to reduce gun deaths,” said American Public Health Association leader Georges Benjamin in a statement on the organization’s website. APHA includes mandatory background checks and making ERPOs available in every state as part of their strategy for reducing gun violence.

An editorial in the journal Epidemiology 2018 advocated for the role of epidemiologists in preventing gun violence, but stated “the lack of U.S. federal funding and public health leadership has, in practice, essentially frozen U.S. public health work across the discipline for 22 years.”

Rep. Marcia Morey (center, in pink) lead the effort by Democrats to move two gun safety bills which have been stuck in committee since they were introduced months ago. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Ultimately, accurate information is essential for informing public health policies that seek to prevent and mitigate the harms of firearms,” the editorial concluded.

Many health care practitioners have embraced the approach.

“Addressing gun violence for us is as much of a public health issue as addressing swimming safety or car seats or bike helmets or smoking,” said David Hill, a pediatrician at Goldsboro Pediatrics.  “It should be part of our annual counseling on safety.”

Hill pointed to a provision in the state budget to fund a small pilot program to provide gun locks and safe storage education. But that’s the same budget currently deadlocked between Gov. Roy Cooper and the legislature.

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives said on Tuesday they were unwilling to move either of the Democrats’ bills.

“These bills were filed, and if they were important enough to the bill sponsors to try to use this parliamentary move to get them on the floor, they might have had better luck two or three months ago,” said Rep. David Lewis, chair of the powerful Rules committee. He cited the budget stalemate as a reason for not moving the bills. “At this time, I think the future of those bills is extremely uncertain.”

Correction: Photo captions in this story originally listed Drew Pescaro’s name as Drew Pescara.

Emily Davis

Emily Davis was the NC Health News summer intern for 2019. She's a senior at UNC Chapel Hill in the School of Media and Journalism.