Legislators get competing gun regulation messages

Legislators get competing gun regulation messages

By Jennifer Fernandez

Gun rights supporters want North Carolina to continue relaxing restrictions, asking legislators last week to get rid of the state permit required to carry a concealed firearm.

Grassroots North Carolina filed a petition that organizers said had more than 7,000 signatures in support of House Bill 189, or the “Freedom to Carry NC” bill.

The day after the group handed its petition to Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, a gun violence survivor joined mothers, students and Democratic legislators opposed to relaxing those restrictions. They gathered for what has become an annual push for gun safety regulations that rarely go anywhere in the Republican-led General Assembly.

The gun safety advocates want legislators to put more funding into safe firearm storage programs after approval last year of the NC Secure All Firearms Effectively initiative that came with little state funding.

The Republican majority has kept Democratic-backed gun restriction bills stuck in committee in recent years. Although Democrats plan to use a procedural move that might allow them to get a bill to the House floor, it’s unlikely it would win the necessary approval to become law. 

The move to abolish concealed carry permits might have more of a chance as Berger told reporters last week that it “is something that’s worth talking about.”

“We’ll talk with our members and see whether or not there’s appetite to move forward with it,” he said.

Firearm deaths rising

Owning firearms or having access to firearms is associated with increased suicide, homicide, unintentional firearm deaths, and injuries, according to multiple studies.

Nationally, gun violence claimed 48,117 lives in 2022, the most recent data available, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Suicides and homicides make up the majority of gun deaths, according to the center’s data, with 26,993 people dying by suicide that year and 19,592 by homicide. Another 472 gun deaths were deemed unintentional, 649 were due to law enforcement intervention and 411 were undetermined.

In North Carolina, firearms are now the leading cause of injury-related death — homicides and suicides — for the state’s youth, according to the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force. They recently surpassed deaths from car accidents.

Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead said Durham is seeing “an epidemic of gun violence.”

“Too many young people are becoming victimized. Too many lives are being shattered at the end of a gun every single day,” Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead said at a press conference last week at the Legislative Building. “In Durham, we are experiencing an epidemic of gun violence like we’ve never seen before.”

Birkhead said deputies seized more than 75 firearms in the last couple of months. One weapon has been connected to 10 separate crimes, he said. 

State officials have said a rise in juvenile crime has been fueled by weapons stolen out of vehicles. In 2022, 60 percent of the firearms taken from juveniles involved in crimes were stolen from vehicles, according to William Lassiter, deputy secretary for juvenile justice and delinquency prevention at the state Department of Public Safety. And 62 percent of those vehicles were not locked, he said last year.

Lassiter also said that juvenile crime involving a firearm had hovered around 3 percent before jumping to almost 13 percent in 2022. That means the number of firearms involved in juvenile crime rose from 1,500 annually to 4,500 that year.

Suicide rates also rising

Along with their use in crime and youth homicides, firearms increasingly are being used in youth suicides.

The 2021 suicide rate for children ages 10 to 17 was the highest in two decades, according to a report by the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force. During that 20-year timespan, the rate more than doubled from 2.1 deaths per 100,000 children to 5.7.

In 2021, about 64 percent of suicides among teens 15 to 17 years old were firearm-related, according to state data on infant and child deaths.

One study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2019 estimated that a “modest increase” in the number of homes that store firearms safely could prevent up to 32 percent of youth suicides. 

Preventing access

The N.C. Child Fatality Task Force had included a firearm storage initiative in its recommendations to lawmakers for five years before winning at least part of that request last year.

Lawmakers approved a two-year firearm safe storage education initiative as part of a new law that also expanded the ability to carry a concealed weapon in some situations without a permit. However, no funding for the education initiative was included in Senate Bill 41, which became law in late March 2023 after lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto.

Instead, Gov. Roy Cooper used state money that wasn’t spent in the previous budget year to start NC S.A.F.E in June 2023. The initiative seeks to “secure all firearms effectively.” It includes an education component and free gunlocks.

The governor’s proposed budget this session includes $2.459 million for NC S.A.F.E. and the Office of Violence Prevention, which Cooper created in March 2023 through an executive order. The Office of Violence Prevention, which works with community partners, uses a public health approach to reduce violence and firearm misuse.

‘Thoughts and prayers’

Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) said she would attempt a parliamentary maneuver called a discharge petition to get her bill intended to curb gun violence out of the rules committee to be heard by the General Assembly. 

“This is about saving lives,” she said. “That’s why we’re here. Again. …. Let’s get sensible gun safety legislation here in North Carolina.”

It has been decades, though, since a discharge petition was successful in getting a bill to the floor, much less passed.

Angela Ferrell-Zabala, executive director of Moms Demand Action, said legislators should be looking to keep firearms out of hands and places where they shouldn’t be.

Gun violence, gun regulations are topic of press conference at N.C. Legislative Building.
Angela Ferrell-Zabala, executive director of Moms Demand Action, speaks about gun control measures.

Preventing gun violence, she said, is more than offering “thoughts and prayers,” a common refrain from lawmakers after mass shootings.

“We’re at a crossroads and we need our elected leaders to show some courage and prioritize popular, effective, common sense gun safety bills instead of rolling back existing laws and exacerbating this crisis,” Ferrell-Zabala added.

Duke University student Rae Rackley also spoke at the press conference. Rackley, a member of Students Demand Action, helped get the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education to adopt a policy on promoting safe storage of firearms when she was still in high school. She is continuing her advocacy as a college student. 

“Students are sick of being forced to live in a world shaped by the cowardice of politicians who endanger us every day,” Rackley said last week. “So we’ll be here all session making our demands clear. We’ll keep showing up. We’ll keep testifying. And we’ll keep the receipts of the lawmakers who refuse to keep us safe. 

“Don’t forget it’s election year. So, if our politicians don’t listen to us, they’ll be wishing for thoughts and prayers come Election Day.”

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