By Anne Blythe

The 15-year-old accused of killing five people and injuring two others in a Raleigh neighborhood last week was armed with a shotgun, a handgun, a hunting knife and ammunition in a knapsack for shotguns and rifles.

Raleigh police chief Estella D. Patterson issued a five-day report on Thursday with details of the violent incident on Oct. 13 that reverberated far beyond Raleigh’s Hedingham neighborhood.

Gov. Roy Cooper called it an “infuriating and tragic act of gun violence” the day after the shootings occured.

President Joe Biden issued a statement in which he called for action in Congress to ban assault weapons. He also mentioned the gun safety bill he signed into law in June shortly after the mass killings in Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo, N.Y. North Carolina’s two Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, voted for it.

“We’ve grieved and prayed with too many families who have had to bear the terrible burden of these mass shootings,” Biden said. “Too many families have had spouses, parents and children taken from them forever”

The suspect in the Wake County case, who has been identified by multiple news outlets as Austin Thompson, fatally shot and stabbed his 16-year-old brother James Thompson, according to the five-day report. Then, according to the report, he went on a shooting rampage that began shortly after 5 p.m. on a warm Thursday evening. The shooting spree ended at about 9:30 p.m. when the suspect was apprehended in a barn-like structure almost two miles away suffering from what appeared to be a gunshot wound.

The report does not reveal the suspect by name nor does it provide a motive for the violence. It also does not say how or where the shooter obtained the weapons.

After James Thompson was shot, law enforcement officers think Marcille Gardner, a special education teacher, was the next person injured. She was found in a driveway and is in critical condition at WakeMed. Nicole Connors, a walking buddy of Gardner’s and a human resources specialist, was fatally shot alongside her dog, which also was found dead.

Gabriel Torres, a Raleigh police officer who was in his car just about to head to work, was the next to be fatally wounded. Two more victims were found shot to death on the Neuse River Greenway Trail, Mary Marshall, who was walking her dog, and then Susan Karnatz, an avid runner who was out for a run.

Police officer Casey Clark was shot while the suspect was hunkered down in the barn-like structure for what added up to a two-hour standoff.

As the community, Raleigh and North Carolinians mourn the victims and the loss of a sense of safety, lawmakers bemoan the many blockades they hit as they advocate for policies and regulations to deter gun violence. 

Thoughts and prayers roll quickly and freely. New laws do not.

Calls for action

Earlier this week, Dan Blue, Democratic leader of the state Senate, organized a briefing with reporters and other Democratic lawmakers to try to spur the Republican leadership in the General Assembly beyond the stalemate.

“Thoughts and prayers fall short … when they’re not followed up with action and change,” Blue said. 

Blue has lived in the Hedingham community for more than three decades. It was not until the mass shooting hit so close to his home last week that he realized what happened in his neighborhood induces all-too-familiar fear and frustration.

“We always think when we hear the latest news of mass shootings that it can’t happen to us, that it can only happen in Denver or Boulder or Charleston or Sandy Hook or Uvalde or Buffalo or Parkland, and the list goes on endlessly, but not to us,” Blue said. “It can and it did.

“Gun violence is an epidemic that has plagued our state and our country,” Blue added. “So far the actions seeking change have been one-sided. 

He noted that Democrats have been calling for gun safety legislation for years. 

“This is an issue that transcends party. It’s an issue about our safety, the safety of our children, the safety of our state, and it’s time that proposals be given serious consideration,” he said.

Blue and others at the briefing with reporters said they respected the Second Amendment and were not putting forth proposals to infringe on anybody’s right to bear arms.

“I want to stress that gun safety reform and respect for the Second Amendment are not mutually exclusive,” Blue said. “We can have both. But it’s about more than just gun safety reforms. We also have to start taking mental health as seriously as we do our physical health. Our kids are in trouble and we don’t make the resources available in our communities, and in our schools, to identify these issues before they become real dangers.”

That stance is similar to one put forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recently released a letter noting that firearms are the leading cause of death for youth 0 to 24 years old. The group called for more education on gun safety, safe storage and safety regulations, as well as more mental health resources for kids.

Mental health needs

In July, Duke psychiatrist Gary Maslow described the youth mental health crisis as “the next wave of the pandemic.” A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that the pandemic had only exacerbated what already was a heightened concern about the mental health of adolescents and children.

At the briefing with reporters, Blue focused on the mental health needs of North Carolinians, knowing that mass shootings often are prompted by someone in a mental health crisis.

“North Carolina has 770 school psychologists for 1.6 million students,” Blue said. “A conservative estimate says that we need at least 2,900 psychologists in our schools to meet their needs. Twenty-five school districts have no psychologists at all on staff. We have to get away from underfunding and understaffing critical parts of our school systems because our students will still suffer as a result.”

Kody Kinsley, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, has said repeatedly that behavioral health needs will be a focus of any post-pandemic plan. Blue hopes to persuade lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum of the importance of funding such efforts.

“Our kids are coming out of the COVID shutdown,” Blue said. “They’ve also missed two years of the socialization, identifying with their classmates, figuring out jointly how to solve problems and how to address many issues, and we need to know that we’re putting in place the machinery and the apparatus that help them get over that and help them grow into adults in an unsophisticated, uncomplicated way.

“Mental health is something that we have the resources to do something about, something that is becoming acute in our state and our nation,” Blue added.

Any room for common ground?

Rep. Robert Reives, a Chatham County Democrat and the House Democratic leader, lamented the politics that can infect the gun safety reform debate and some of the other thorny issues that come before lawmakers.

“At some point in time we stopped becoming a solutions-oriented government, and that breaks my heart,” Reives said at the briefing with Blue and reporters. “It feels like every time we try to talk about solutions, they become political talk to the point where I almost feel obligated to say this is not about taking anybody’s guns. Nobody up here wants to take anybody’s guns. This is not about good legal responsible gun ownership. It’s just about seeing there is a problem, acknowledging that there is a problem, and trying to get some different viewpoints to help solve that problem.”

Reives advocated for small steps, ones for which he hoped there could be bipartisan support. He noted that DHHS estimates some 2 million North Carolinians will experience a mental illness or substance use disorder. 

“We don’t do things to help our communities take care of themselves,” Reives said. 

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Kings Mountain, released a statement after the Democratic lawmakers’ briefing, according to WRAL, saying lawmakers “should remain focused on praying for the victims’ families and supporting law enforcement rather than seizing the moment for a political debate.”

Red flag law proposals

Since the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, Rep. Marcia Morey, a Democrat from Durham and a former district court judge, has put forward proposal after proposal for extreme risk protective orders, or “red flag laws.” They have not gotten a hearing in committees in the Republican-controlled chamber.

Ten bills have been introduced on the House side since Parkland, Morey said, “to address common sense gun safety. Zero hearings.”

Senate leadership has not given a hearing on a Republican-sponsored bill that passed the House with sweeping bipartisan support to provide $150,000 to DHHS for an education campaign on safe firearm storage that would include free gun safety locks.

This has been a proposal recommended for years by the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force. In May, the task force presented its annual report to the governor that included the number of firearm-related deaths and injuries to children over the past decade.

From 2011 through 2020, 525 children 17 and younger died from gun-related injuries, according to the report. Of those, 105 deaths occurred in 2020, a year in which gun sales skyrocketed.

Although Democrats are most vocal about passing gun safety measures, the idea has bipartisan support at the state and federal levels. 

The federal law offers incentives for states that adopt red flag laws. In Florida, one conservative-run state that already has a red flag law, the statute has been enacted thousands of times since its initial passage in the wake of the Parkland shooting. That state has seen a decrease in deaths by suicide each year since the law’s passage. 

Morey, who plans to put forward another proposal in the next legislative session, and others at the briefing would like North Carolina to join the growing list of states with such laws.

“That’s not the long hand of the government coming in taking anything from anybody,” Reives said. “That’s a community saying, ‘We recognize that we have a member in our community that we love and support and we want to help support that person through a crisis, but right now during that crisis there are things they don’t need access to. A judge makes the decision. It’s a temporary decision. You get an opportunity for a full hearing. 

“But we take more seriously somebody failing to wear a seat belt and then forgetting to pay that ticket.”

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Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.