By Anne Blythe
Democratic lawmakers, undaunted by the political odds against them in North Carolina’s Republican-led General Assembly, have championed bills year after year to rein in gun violence over the past decade.
Their Republican opponents, emboldened by better numbers in both legislative chambers this year, have adopted legislation that would put North Carolina on a very different route — one followed by 25 other states where people can openly carry firearms without permits, even in houses of worship that double as schools.
While the proposals introduced by Democrats quickly were relegated to legislative committees where they have little hope of ever progressing to law, Republicans are feeling wind at their backs as HB 189, or the Constitutional Carry Act, sails along.
Facing such prospects — and the knowledge that his veto power is weakened by a new Republican supermajority in the Senate and nearly one in the House — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has used other powers at his disposal to try to tamp down gun violence across the state.
On March 14, with Kody Kinsley, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, and state Attorney General Josh Stein by his side, Cooper issued an executive order calling for the creation of the North Carolina Office of Violence Prevention.
The establishment of the new office comes at a time when gun deaths among children in North Carolina have risen to the level of a public health crisis. A recent North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force report noted that from 2012 through 2021, more than 600 children ages 17 and younger died from firearm-related injuries in North Carolina. The report also tabulated data showing that each year there are five or six times as many firearm-related hospitalizations and emergency department visits as there are deaths.
The new office also comes as the first gun legislation of this year lands on Cooper’s desk, where it awaits his signature, veto or a decision to let it become law without his approval.
“All of us deserve to feel safe in our homes, our schools and our communities,” Cooper said in a statement issued earlier this week. “This new office will help coordinate the efforts to reduce violent crime, tackle both intentional and careless gun injuries and deaths, and work to keep people safe.”
The goal of the office, which will be part of the state Department of Public Safety, is to help law enforcement and public health communities reduce violence in a coordinated way through training efforts and the development of models that build upon successful community-based programs.
Reaching out to partners
“Partnerships are key to public safety,” Eddie Buffaloe, secretary of the public safety department, said in a statement.
Kinsley added that such partnerships also are key to public health.
“A public health approach driven by data and informed by those most impacted will improve community safety and save lives in North Carolina,” Kinsley said. “We will build on the already successful programs across the state — layering those approaches to meet the needs of specific communities and mitigate violence.”
The Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice that Cooper formed in June 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, recommended the coordinated partnership.
“Violence doesn’t just damage those who are directly impacted — it can be traumatic to the entire community,” Stein, a co-leader of the task force, said in a statement about the new office. “We can help break these devastating cycles of violence by investing in our communities, taking some common-sense gun violence prevention measures and strengthening partnerships between law enforcement and the people they serve.”
In his State of the State address on March 6, Cooper lamented a recent report from the Child Fatality Task Force that found that children in North Carolina were 51 percent more likely to die from gun violence than children across the country as a whole.
“If you support the responsible gun ownership that we are granted under the Second Amendment, as I do, then we cannot accept this,” Cooper said in his speech to lawmakers. “In the weeks to come, let’s move forward to fight gun violence, not backward.”
Different legislative approaches
Democrats tried in early March with omnibus bills that would:
- Require a permit to purchase an assault rifle or long gun
- Institute a 72-hour waiting period after a firearm purchase before it can be delivered or handed over to a new owner
- Set the minimum age at 18 for someone to possess or carry a handgun or long gun, and at least 21 to possess or carry an assault rifle
- Limit the size of ammunition magazines
- Prohibit the sale of bump stocks and trigger cranks, devices that can allow weapons to function more like an assault weapon, and fire more quickly
- Repeal the “Stand Your Ground Laws” and codify common law regarding use of force against an intruder
- Require safe storage of firearms and more violence prevention measures.
“We keep trying. We have to,” said Marcia Morey, a Democrat and former district court judge from Durham who saw from her vantage point in the courtroom the devastation of unchecked gun violence.
Morey opposes Republicans’ continued push to take county sheriffs out of the pistol permitting process and other measures that she deems dangerous loosening of gun regulation. For their part, Republicans have argued that the permitting process is superfluous since background checks are required to buy the weapons.
The measure to repeal the requirement for handgun permits advanced in a House judiciary committee just hours after the governor’s announcement, according to The Associated Press. So did the proposal to allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry a gun while attending houses of worship even if they also are places where schools meet.
Sen. Danny Britt, a Republican from Lumberton, said at the time that supporters of such legislation were trying to make it easier for law-abiding citizens to purchase firearms with which they could protect themselves.
Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat from Davidson who co-sponsored the Gun Violence Prevention Act in the Senate, has called such proposals “the antithesis” of what North Carolina ought to be doing.
When she took office, Marcus said she heard a common refrain from many constituents. “Please do something about gun violence,” she said they told her.
Children caught in crosshairs
As lawmakers and people in the halls of power in North Carolina’s capital quarrel over whether it’s more beneficial to ease or tighten gun laws, mass shootings and children caught in the crosshairs of gun violence make headlines.
On March 13, a 15-year-old boy was fatally shot in Rocky Mount.
On March 12, a 12-year-old girl was shot in the middle of the afternoon in Durham, where seven other children younger than 18 have been shot this year, according to WRAL.
Late last year, a 15-year-old boy was accused of killing five people and wounding two others in Raleigh’s Hedingham neighborhood. He was armed with a hunting knife, a shotgun and a handgun and was carrying a knapsack with ammunition for shotguns and rifles.
That shooting and other high-profile cases have moved state lawmakers to call for safe-storage bills and extreme risk protective orders, or “red flag laws,” neither of which have been adopted.
This year, Republicans included a provision to study safe storage in their proposals to loosen gun restrictions, a nod to a perennial recommendation from the Child Fatality Task Force to fund and adopt an educational campaign for such a measure.
Rob Steele, a Raleigh man whose fiancee, Mary Marshall, died in the Hedingham mass shooting in October 2022, was with Democratic lawmakers inside the Legislative Building on March 6 when they outlined their proposed changes to gun laws.
Steele said his life had been “forever changed.” He said he still becomes overcome by grief and depression, often in unexpected waves. After receiving the news about his fiancee, Steele decided he did not think it was wise to have his gun close by. He turned it over to law enforcement officers that very night.
“I red-flagged myself,” Steele said. “I was smart enough to know that I was not going to be OK.”
Steele said he “might have made a dumb decision” had he had his gun within reach. He advocated for a law that would allow a judge to order the temporary removal of a weapon.
“It’s time for North Carolina to have a judge that can make decisions that a gun owner is not responsible and safe to have their gun,” Steele said.
Red flag laws have proliferated since the mass shooting on Feb. 14, 2018, of 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C, have enacted such laws. They vary in the details, but some allow law enforcement officers and occasionally mental health providers or school administrators to petition a court to restrict someone’s access to guns to prevent harm. North Carolina is among 13 states where red flag laws have been proposed but not yet adopted.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in June 2022, provides funding for states that create and implement extreme risk protection order programs, crisis intervention court proceedings and other gun violence reduction initiatives in the same vein.
‘Voice for the voiceless’
Garry L. McFadden, the Mecklenburg County sheriff, was in Raleigh on March 6 for a news conference with Democratic lawmakers, who outlined their plans for a red flag law and other gun violence prevention measures. He was critical of the legislation moving through the General Assembly to take North Carolina sheriffs out of the pistol permitting process.
The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, a lobbying group for the elected law enforcement officers across the state, supports the repeal. But not all sheriffs are in favor of the action. At the news conference earlier this month, McFadden spoke extemporaneously.
“I don’t need notes. I don’t need anything to read from because I’m in my 40th year of law enforcement,” McFadden said. “I come with lived experience.”
McFadden recounted an interaction he had with law enforcement in the state of Washington recently to underscore why he thinks it is important for sheriffs to be in the mix when it comes to deciding who should have a gun.
“Two months ago, I got a call from Washington state inquiring about a guy that we had denied a gun,” McFadden recalled. “He came to Mecklenburg County in February to apply for a gun.”
The sheriff looked up the applicant in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database but saw no immediate flags. Still, he was troubled by some reports that he had come across and denied the applicant a permit, a decision the young man appealed.
Two court hearings were scheduled for the appeal, but the applicant did not show up for either one, according to the sheriff.
The same young man went back to his home state — one with looser laws — and was allowed to have a weapon, McFadden said.
“Four hours later, he took the life of an innocent young man standing in the parking lot waiting for his brother,” McFadden said.
Too often, the Mecklenburg sheriff said, law enforcement officers are left to tell families of victims why the shooter had a gun, how it was obtained and why checks in the system did not stop the violence before it was too late. They are left to lend support to the families of loved ones in the throes of mental health crises who harm themselves or others.
“When you look at laws, we are the voice for the voiceless,” McFadden said. “We are standing here for people who are asking us to speak for the victims’ families. … Imagine — for two decades it was my job to try to explain to a family why did he have a gun, why did she have a gun, why the gun wasn’t stored properly. Or why would the state allow someone who has already said that they are going to be an abuser, who told the judges that I will do this again or told the doctor during a confrontation or consultation at the doctor’s office that I have thoughts of suicide, that I have thoughts of harming my family…
“Yet we allow these people to have guns.”