Politics & Government

Tougher gun laws for North Carolina? Probably ‘one of the last states’

A would-be buyer inspects a weapon at a Las Vegas gun show.
A would-be buyer inspects a weapon at a Las Vegas gun show. AP

In Florida, a state House panel endorsed raising the minimum age to buy rifles and creating a three-day waiting period for gun sales.

Ohio’s governor wants to limit large-capacity magazines and ban bump stocks.

And in Rhode Island, the governor signed a bill that could take guns away from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

But in North Carolina the prospect for tougher gun laws appears unlikely, even after last month’s shooting that killed 17 people at a Florida high school.

Lawmakers are reviewing ways to increase school safety. But those efforts are expected to stop short of gun restrictions.

“Folks want to try to drag the gun debate into it,” Republican House Speaker Tim Moore told a TV interviewer last week. “Look, that’s a discussion for another time.”

Fueled by media-savvy students from Parkland, Fla., the gun issue has returned to the spotlight around the country. Student-led marches are scheduled in Washington and elsewhere this month. Some corporations have severed ties with the National Rifle Association, the nation’s biggest gun lobby. And Dick’s Sporting Goods announced Wednesday that it is halting sales of assault-style rifles like the one used in the Florida shooting.

Even President Donald Trump, a strong ally of the NRA, said Wednesday he favors a “comprehensive” approach to guns including more thorough background checks and raising the age for some gun purchases.

All that encourages gun control advocates like Becky Ceartas, executive director North Carolinians Against Gun Violence. She said she’s talked to a lot of people since Parkland. For now she’s trying to stop a bill that would let people carry weapons in public places without a concealed carry permit.

“There are people throughout this state getting involved to make a difference,” Ceartas said. “We’re optimistic because we see that the citizens of North Carolina are saying ‘We have the right to be safe at school and in public.’ 

Prayers ‘not enough’

Some gun control advocates are less hopeful.

“I would predict that unless the majority of the General Assembly change, that there wouldn’t be anything to advance gun safety and I would expect more loosening of gun laws,” said Christy Clark of Huntersville, former head of the state chapter of Moms Demand Action, a gun control group.

She’s one of two Democrats challenging Republican Rep. John Bradford in District 98. Clark, a mother of five, said the Florida school shooting “pushes gun violence prevention to the forefront” of her campaign. But so far there’s little sign that’s true for other candidates.

David McLennan, a political scientist at Raleigh’s Meredith College, said there’s always been opposition to tighter gun laws in North Carolina.

“I’d say North Carolina would probably be one of the last states to follow the lead of Florida or even the federal government,” McLennan said. “I think we see the typical divide here. It just doesn’t seem to be that rural legislators have any interest at all in terms of doing anything significant in dealing with access to guns or mental health or any of the affiliated issues.”

The NRA has spent heavily in North Carolina at the congressional level, but not for the General Assembly. Republican Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis have been two of its biggest Congressional beneficiaries, with the NRA spending millions on TV ads against their last Democratic opponents.

But the NRA gives virtually nothing to legislative candidates. In 2016, for example, the organization donated to just one N.C. lawmaker and to the House Republican caucus. Instead it depends on mailers and scorecards to its many members across the state and the country.

Much of the Republican legislative leadership comes from rural areas, where support for gun rights is strong. But that support also extends to other areas.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael, a Democrat, had planned a gun raffle as a campaign fundraiser last month. But he canceled it in the wake of the Florida school shooting.

N.C. lawmakers have always been wary of gun control. In its scorecard of state gun laws, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives North Carolina a D minus.

In 2013 the legislature passed and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law that allows concealed-carry weapons on college campuses. Opposed by college leaders, the bill passed a year after a gunman killed 12 at a Colorado movie theater. In supporting the bill, one N.C. lawmaker said if more people had guns fewer people might have died.

Last year the House passed HB746, which would allow anyone who legally owns a gun to carry it concealed without a permit anywhere they can carry it openly. Critics like Ceartas say it effectively ends the need for concealed-carry permits, which require the holders to be 21 and pass firearm safety training. The bill is in the Senate and eligible for consideration in the session that starts in May.

‘Everyone’s asking’

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has offered no specific recommendations on guns or school safety. But spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said Cooper “is clear that sending prayers in the wake of a shooting is simply not enough.

“He is reviewing options for how to best prevent gun violence and protect schools and communities in North Carolina,” she said in a statement, “including stronger background checks and purchasing protocols.”

Most legislative attention has turned to the issue of school security, though not necessarily to guns.

Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican helping lead a special committee named by the speaker, said he’s willing to take a look at everything, including guns. But he’s not sure that’s the answer.

“An inanimate object never did anybody any harm without the person behind it doing the harm,” he said. “It’s the action of the individual who uses it as a tool to harm people.”

Rep. John Bradford

Bradford, the Cornelius Republican, doesn’t believe guns are the problem.

“I don’t think banning guns is the answer,” said Bradford, who had an A rating from the NRA in 2016. “My big thing is if people want to do harm, they’re going to do harm.”

He favors tightening loopholes in systems for background checks and handgun permits.

GOP Sen. Ronald Rabin of Harnett County co-chairs the Joint Legislative Emergency Management Oversight Committee and also had an A rating from the NRA. He said lawmakers could expand the number of armed school resource officers and even outlaw “bump stocks,” which make weapons virtually automatic. Trump also has called for their elimination.

One member of the oversight committee is open to going further.

Sen. Jeff Tarte

“How do you separate gun laws and school safety given what’s going on?” asked Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican with an A+ NRA rating. “The legislature has to have those conversations. If they don’t occur formally they’ll happen informally. Unless you’re living under a rock, everyone’s asking.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill