Craig Stephen Hicks, the unemployed community college student accused of killing three college-age Muslims, almost instantly became a social-media portrait for questions about religious bias and hate crimes.
Now the 46-year-old self-described atheist has become a symbol for gun politics, too. Opposite sides in the gun-control debate are using his case to bolster very different appeals for policy change.
The advocates for more controls say the aggressive behavior cited by Hicks’ neighbors illustrates why they endorse fuller background checks with hopes of limiting gun access.
Those advocating more gun freedom argue that such violence might be prevented in the future if more weapons, not fewer, were in the right hands.
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Jeffrey Swanson, a Duke University professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences whose research on guns and anger was released last week, says the Hicks case is a prime example for why the gun-policy debate should be refocused beyond the traditional arguments. Instead of just trying to limit gun access for the seriously mentally ill, he suggests looking at behavioral patterns that could reveal a propensity for explosiveness.
Swanson is a lead author of a recently published study from researchers at Duke, Harvard and Columbia universities that concludes: Roughly 22 million Americans, or nearly 9 percent of the adult population, have impulsive anger issues and easy access to guns. Of that angry group, nearly 3.7 million are gun owners who routinely carry their weapons in public, and very few of them, according to the study, are subject to mental health-based gun ownership restrictions.
Hicks, Swanson said, “is the poster person for our study.”
Until his Feb. 10 arrest on three first-degree murder charges, Hicks was a gun owner with a valid conceal-carry permit and a cache of about a dozen firearms and ammunition that he kept in his second-story condominium in eastern Chapel Hill.
Family and friends of the three victims, Deah Barakat, 23, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, have said Hicks routinely confronted his neighbors over parking and noise issues.
Neighbors have said Hicks became so obsessed with parking patterns and having cars towed from the Finley Forest condominium complex several miles east of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus that the housing association asked him to stop.
Family and friends of the victims say Hicks, on more than one occasion, revealed the gun holstered to his hip during a confrontation.
Refocusing the gun question
The findings from Swanson and his colleagues were built from data collected in the early 2000s from almost 6,000 people. They combed the information to explore the intersection of anger issues, mental health and the ownership and possession of guns.
Gun owners point out, and Swanson’s study reiterates, that gun owners as a whole aren’t any more likely to suffer anger issues than non-owners of guns. The vast majority of them never have and never will commit a gun crime.
And when talking about anger, Swanson said, he’s not referring to the “garden-variety” type where people shout in rage.
Instead, “these are people who break things, smash things, get into fights, are impulsive, out of control, destructive,” Swanson said.
The angry adults with easy access to guns typically were young to middle-age men, likely to be married and living in suburbia, the study found.
In 2012, 11,622 people in the United States were killed by a firearm discharged during an intentional act of violence, according to the study, and an additional 57,077 were injured.
The high-profile mass shootings that grab media headlines and stir an emotional push to do something about gun violence often set the focus of lawmakers’ toward the need to keep firearms out of the hands of those with a serious mental illness.
The new study, though, suggests that such a narrow focus would make only a tiny dent in the death numbers.
The researchers from Duke, Harvard and Columbia universities analyzed data gleaned from 5,563 face-to-face interviews conducted as part of a nationwide survey of mental disorders back in the early 2000s.
Fewer than one in 10 of those angry people with access to guns had ever been admitted to a hospital for a psychiatric or substance abuse problem, according to the study.
Though their behavioral history might suggest a propensity for violence, nothing in their medical histories would bar them from legally purchasing guns under existing mental health related restrictions.
Gun violence and serious mental illness are two very important but distinct public health issues, Swanson said. While there is intersection between the two, Swanson pointed out that much of that is at the edges.
And acknowledged anger issues alone are not a reason to take someone’s gun away. But there are other things policymakers could do to limit gun access among the most high-risk members of the population. Swanson suggested that “evidence-based indicators of risk” such as misdemeanor assault convictions, multiple DWIs or domestic violence incidents or allegations could be better used.
“What we’re trying to do,” Swanson said, “... is refocus the process of figuring out who are the dangerous people who shouldn’t have access to firearms.”
Federal law already limits gun access for convicted felons and for people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes. Many states’ laws let domestic abusers keep their guns until temporary restraining orders become permanent, even though evidence suggests that this period presents particularly high risk to a potential victim. In North Carolina, however, judges have found ways to link relinquishment of weapons to conditions of bond release for people awaiting trial on domestic violence accusations.
Swanson and his colleagues suggest adding other misdemeanors to the federal law limiting gun access, such as assault, brandishing a weapon and making open threats. They also say repeat DWI offenders should be kept away from guns, given the many incidents of alcohol-fueled gun violence.
Connecticut and Indiana, two very different states politically and demographically, have “dangerous persons” gun removal laws – subject to due process, Swanson said.
California recently enacted a gun-violence restraining order that builds on the existing system.
The laws provide family members and law enforcement officers avenues for quick removal of weapons within close reach of people engaged in high-risk behavior.
The Chapel Hill shooting, like Columbine and Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., haunt with “many ‘what-ifs,’” Swanson and co-author Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University professor of psychiatry, medicine and law, stated in an opinion piece released with the study.
“What if the U.S. Supreme Court had not decided that the Second Amendment confers a right for every person to have a handgun for their personal protection? While academically interesting, that question is unlikely to get us anywhere,” the professors said. “A more productive question is this: What if a law had allowed the shooters to be legally separated from their guns on the basis of a recognized pattern of impulsive, angry, threatening behavior? The memory of all the victims should demand an answer.”
New gun bills scrutinized
North Carolina legislators introduced a flurry of new gun bills in late March that, if adopted, would limit the kind of information that sheriffs in this state could seek from people applying for gun permits and expand who can get permits.
Gun-control advocates describe the proposed legislation as big steps down the wrong path. The lawmakers describe them as attempts to clarify and bring uniformity to a permitting process that varies among county sheriffs’ offices.
Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, introduced the Concealed Handgun Standardization Act, Senate Bill 641, on March 26, the deadline for filing new bills in the N.C. Senate this session. It was one of 195 bills filed that day and part of a trio introduced by Tarte. It would shorten wait times for permits and limit the questions that sheriffs could ask about an applicant’s behavioral history. Another of the three bills, Senate Bill 708 titled the Homeland Security Patriot Act, would establish a new group of permitted gun carriers.
The “homeland security unrestricted concealed handgun permit” that Tarte proposes comes with a special badge.
Those holders of such a permit would be required to go through a multi-step training program. Upon completion they would have “unlimited access” to most anywhere in the state – including property where concealed handguns are prohibited. Courthouses would be off limits, Tarte said.
Tarte batted back criticism that such a program would encourage “vigilantism.”
“Politely, I take offense to that,” said Tarte, 58, a hunter who said he has gotten three concealed-carry permits in his lifetime. “That’s not the intent in any way shape or form. It’s not people going out looking to enforce law.”
Rather, Tarte said, it would be for people who find themselves in emergencies that law enforcement officers have yet to respond to.
“We’ve got so much nonsense going on,” Tarte said. “We’ve got evil people. There’s no possible way police can respond to everything.”
Tarte said he wanted to get police and sheriffs on board with the bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Ronald Rabin, a Republican from Harnett County.
Another Senate bill that is not part of Tarte’s trio would allow “certain types” of employees and volunteers to carry concealed firearms, tear gas or stun guns on private school property.
In January, the Violence Policy Center, an organization that advocates for gun controls, released a study showing that the five states with the highest per capita gun death rates in 2013 had extremely lax gun violence prevention laws. North Carolina ranked 21st on the list.
The organization also has a Concealed Carry Killers project, identifying what is described as “fatal, non-self defense incidents from May 2007 to the present involving private citizens with permits to carry concealed handguns.”
In addition to nine other North Carolina cases on the site, Hicks is mentioned among the homicides and suicides.
Becky Caertas, the director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, said her organization plans to spend a lot of time this session fighting the North Carolina proposals.
The all-access permit, Caertas said, “creates a class of people that presents themselves above the law.
“It is disturbing that we are moving toward allowing guns to more public spaces and not less,” she sad. “This is a step in the wrong direction. I think the Hicks case just demonstrates that we need to put common-sense legislation on where people can carry guns.”