Editorials

NC needs a red-flag law to stem gun violence caused by mental distress

N.C. House of Representatives member Judge Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat who spent 18 years as a district court judge, proposes that North Carolina lawmakers adopt a Gun Violence Restraining Order in the wake of school shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas.
N.C. House of Representatives member Judge Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat who spent 18 years as a district court judge, proposes that North Carolina lawmakers adopt a Gun Violence Restraining Order in the wake of school shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas. N&O file photo

After mass shootings, gun rights advocates reject gun control proposals by saying the problem isn't guns, it's mental illness.

So what happened in North Carolina when a Democratic state representative proposed a law this week that would remove guns from people who are in severe mental distress? Republican House Speaker Tim Moore, without discussion or comment, promptly sent the proposal to the House Rules Committee, a place where bills often go to die.

Rejection of legislation because it comes from the other party or challenges a rigid position is thoughtless. And when it comes to guns, it's dangerous. Moore's job is to oversee House debates, not quash them. And when the subject is as urgent as preventing slaughter, he should be encouraging a debate over what can be done.

Moore said in February, after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, that he wanted to focus on solutions that can win support from both sides. This is one of them.

State Rep. Marcia Morey of Durham proposed the bill as North Carolina's version of a "red-flag law" that has been passed by nine other states, most recently by Florida after the Parkland school shooting left 17 dead. In Florida, Republicans control both chambers. Ten other states and the District of Columbia are considering red-flag laws and there is bipartisan support developing in Congress for a federal version.

Red-flag laws enable family members or law enforcement to ask a judge to issue a temporary order for the removal of guns from a person who is a danger to himself or others. The measure is similar to restraining orders in domestic violence situations.

If anyone in the legislature knows about the need to allow judges to intervene in volatile situations, it's Morey. During 18 years as a judge on the Durham district court bench, she presided over many hearings in which such a protective order might have helped prevent a shooting or a suicide.

"Time and time again I heard family members and law enforcement and victims testify about warning signs, red flags — 'He was a time bomb waiting to go off' or 'I knew this was going to happen' or 'I knew he was going to take his own life'," she said in announcing the bill this week.

The bill, Morey said, would allow the courts "to remove guns from the hands of people who are on the verge of violence to others or themselves."

While prompted by recent school shootings, Morey's bill would also help stem a far more common form of gun violence, suicide. Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, and member of the Army Reserves, spoke briefly in support of the proposal as a way to reduce the high level of suicide among veterans.

"If you ask the experts that actually do the research on this what some of the factors are that go into the increasing number of suicides, one of them is, in fact, access to lethal means," Martin said.

Gun rights advocates are wary that red-flag laws could lead to even broader government power to confiscate guns. But no right is absolute, especially when it presents a deadly threat to others. Morey's bill includes judicial procedures that protect an individual's constitutional rights even as its prevents the mentally disturbed from harming others or themselves.

Moore should bring this bill forward. Better yet, he should add his name as a co-sponsor. In doing so, the House Speaker wouldn't be just rescuing a bill from knee-jerk rejection. He could well be rescuing lives.

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