Heightened gun debate pulls grass-roots activists in from both sides

cjarvis@newsobserver.comMarch 2, 2013 

  • Gun bills introduced so far in the N.C. General Assembly this session

    HB17: Allows concealed handguns in restaurants that serve alcohol. Makes handgun permit records confidential.

    SB17: Prevents concealed handgun permits issued in another state to someone who doesn’t live in that state from being recognized in North Carolina.

    SB27: Permits armed marshals in schools.

    SB28: Makes handgun permit records confidential.

    HB49: Allows firearms to be kept in locked vehicles in private parking lots, such as at work.

    SB59: Allows armed guards in kindergarten through 12th grade schools.

    HR63: A resolution in support of the federal and state constitutional rights to bear arms.

    SB146: Allows private schools to authorize some employees and volunteers to have firearms, tear gas or stun guns on campus if properly trained. It also allows concealed handgun permit-holders to bring their weapons on parochial school property if they are attending a worship service there.

    HB187: Allows private schools in Forsyth County to allow an employee with a concealed handgun permit to bring the weapon on school property.

Some of the most fervent voices in the debate over gun control are coming from neighborhood-based clusters of people who are impatient with the traditional organizations.

In January, thousands from around the country marched from the Capitol to the Washington Monument for tougher gun control. A national group that formed the day after the Newtown shootings in December, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, is planning a “Moms Take the Hill” day in Washington on March 13 to ask congressional representatives to get tough on guns. A group from Cary will be among those attending.

“I’ve had enough,” said Nancy van Dijk, one of the Cary group’s leaders. “We deserve a voice.”

Meanwhile, thousands of protesters gathered at state capitols around the country on Jan. 19 to tell lawmakers to hold fast against further restrictions on responsible gun owners, an effort organized by the Texas-based Guns Across America. In North Carolina, sheriffs and commissioners are being asked to take a stand for gun rights.

Activist and blogger Randy Dye, a Pittsboro resident who calls himself a constitutionalist, says the mood in the country is so pitched over gun control that if the federal government goes too far, protests in the nation’s capitol will dwarf last year’s rallies against the federal health-care law.

“You think that was bad, you wait until they start messing with our Second Amendment,” Dye said. “You’ll have 10 times as many people.”

In North Carolina, pro gun-rights advocates have traditionally been active and visible. Grass Roots North Carolina says it has more than 60,000 people on its alert list, and can mobilize effective campaigns aimed at state lawmakers. It has helped push through legislation that loosened gun restrictions in the past two years.

Last week, it joined with 38 groups across the country to call congressional delegations and the U.S. House and Senate Republican leaders. The National Rifle Association and a number of other gun-related organizations are also active in North Carolina, including an effort based at N.C. State University to allow concealed handguns on college campuses.

Less visible has been the state’s main advocacy group for gun control, North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, which had a more sympathetic ear when Democrats were in power. But in January, the loose-knit collection based in Cary launched a campaign of its own.

Pressing politicians

One morning last month, 15 people, mostly retirees from the Wake County suburbs, leaned across a table in a Cary café to make their points politely but emphatically to Betty Jo Shepheard, a constituent services staffer for Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.

What they had to say was: Gun violence has to stop. Bullets should be controlled like prescriptions. It’s easier to get a gun than it is to volunteer in a middle-school library. High-volume magazines have no place in the civilian world.

“The deaths of 20 innocent children – what’s it going to take?” Margaret Peeples of Raleigh asked Shepheard, who dutifully took notes as the discussion swirled around her.

Calling itself the Kitchen Table Group, the gun-control advocates began with a circle of like-minded people, mostly who live near each other in Cary, many of whom met while working to elect Obama in 2008. They kept running into each other working on political causes in the ensuing years.

The slaughter of the schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 gave the group a new focus. They began meeting in January, gathering around kitchen tables and setting up a Facebook page and an email list of more than 300 to share information and circulate petitions.

They have been meeting with representatives of the Triangle’s congressional delegation, including a trip to Dunn to visit Rep. Renee Ellmers’ office the same day they met with Burr’s staffer. Some of the Cary residents were gerrymandered into the Republican congresswoman’s district and out of Democratic Rep. David Price’s district. They invited Ellmers to visit them in Cary in a town hall setting.

“Maybe I’m naïve, but I’m hopeful that Ellmers will listen,” van Dijk said after the meeting. “The other side of her district is all rural. This is an urban area, with a lot of density and a lot of people here.”

Ellmers, who released a statement of sympathy for the victims soon after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut, just as promptly issued a statement criticizing Obama for his call for more gun control. “President Obama is once again exploiting a tragedy for political gain and eroding our constitutional rights for the sake of an extreme liberal agenda,” Ellmers’ statement read.

Burr responded similarly, vowing, “I will not stand by while the president and others try to restrict the rights of law-abiding American citizens.” A spokesman for Burr said calls to his offices run about 4-to-1 against more gun restrictions.

1 term, little clarity

A recent survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, reported that North Carolinians support a ban on “assault weapons” by a margin of 51 percent to 41 percent. But “assault weapon” is an indefinite and controversial term.

The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban outlawed semi-automatic weapons that shared cosmetic features with military weapons that are fully automatic, which have been heavily restricted since 1934. The 1994 law also banned weapons that had a higher capacity for ammunition. The law expired in 2004 and wasn’t renewed; there is now an effort in Congress to pass legislation that would be even more restrictive.

A semi-automatic weapon fires as quickly as the trigger can be pulled, unlike a machine gun, which fires continuously. Gun-rights advocates contend the term “assault weapon” is inaccurate and unnecessarily frightens people. Semi-automatic rifles and handguns – particularly the AR-15 rifle – are popular with hunters and competitive shooters , but some say the danger the weapons pose outweighs their recreational use.

The PPP survey also found that, in a state where the National Rifle Association has a favorability rating of 45 percent, North Carolinians support tougher gun laws in general by a margin of 54 percent to 40 percent.

Recently, the NRA took out a full page ad in The News & Observer urging gun supporters to call Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan to urge her to reject the president’s call for gun restrictions. A spokesman for Hagan said her office wouldn’t comment “on the nature of constituent phone calls,” other than to say she “continues to hear from North Carolinians on both sides of this and many other issues.”

A survey released Friday by the Council of State Governments found a broad range of reaction to gun-control issues. Thirty states have introduced measures prohibiting the enforcement of new federal gun laws, including civil and criminal penalties. Eighteen states have introduced bans on assault weapons, and 20 states are looking at restrictions on magazine capacity.

About the only thing the states agree on, the survey found, was that criminals and the mentally ill shouldn’t have firearms.

No gray area in debate

An eastern Wake County-based group calling itself the Moccasin Creek Minutemen has been pushing Triangle sheriffs to take a public position on whether they would confiscate firearms or resist federal efforts to ban assault weapons. Similar challenges have played out across the country this year. In January, the sheriffs of Wake, Wayne and Franklin counties met with a large crowd in Zebulon at a forum sponsored by the group.

The Minutemen formed in the fall of 2009, and now says it boasts about 100 members. It meets monthly at a steakhouse in Zebulon. Its website says it is fighting the country’s “move toward the path of socialism and eventual implosion,” and “The day will come when we will call ourselves patriots.”

A loose-knit collection of tea party-minded activists has asked county commissioners to take a stand on gun rights. Dye says those efforts have led six county boards to pass resolutions upholding the Second Amendment.

“It’s more symbolic than anything,” Dye said. “We’re going throughout the state to show the General Assembly at the state level how serious this is.”

Dye is among those who have staked out a position not to give up any ground in the gun debate .

“I’ve seen the evil in this world,” said Dye, a longtime nurse who worked in a Los Angeles hospital. “Playing with the Second Amendment is not going to get rid of it.”

One day when he and his family were living in a secured apartment complex in California, Dye said, a man sneaked up on his wife as she was about to get in her car and pressed a knife to her back. She tried to give him the keys but he said she was coming with him. When she pleaded that she had children, the man told her she wouldn’t see them again, Dye said.

Desperate, she elbowed the man in the gut and escaped from his grip. She began screaming and neighbors called police, who caught the assailant driving off in her car.

“At that point in my life I said, ‘You know what, you will never be a victim,’ ” Dye said.

His wife enrolled in a class to qualify for a concealed weapons permit, he said.

Experience shapes views

At the café in Cary with Burr’s representative, most of those asking for tighter gun controls said they had experience with weapons. Several grew up around them and said people should have the right to own them. Some had chilling experiences that helped shaped their views on gun regulation.

For Kim Yaman of Cary, that moment came in 1991, when a former grad student wandered the University of Iowa campus and shot five people to death and critically injured one. He used a .38-caliber handgun and also carried a .22-caliber handgun that he didn’t use – neither gun is considered an “assault weapon.” Yaman, a student who worked at the university, was friends with two of the victims.

Yaman was on campus with her two young children, who were practicing Turkish folk dancing for a presentation. She rushed them into a classroom and locked the door, where they waited in terror.

“Once you’ve been through something like that your mind just takes you back – the constant looping of memory, going back and wondering what could I have done differently,” Yaman said in an interview later.

She and her family moved to the Triangle a few years later, and she brought with her an indelible commitment to ending gun violence.

“As the years accumulate, we haven’t made much headway,” she said. “There were gatherings at that time, and we were having the same exact conversations, trying to find solutions. Even after all these years, we’re still no closer to finding an answer, unfortunately.”

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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