Some lawmakers say it’s time to give judges and law enforcement the power to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed to be dangerous to themselves and others.
Dangers from gun owners who turn violent are not abstractions to state Rep. Marcia Morey.
During her 18 years as a District Court judge, the Durham Democrat witnessed hundreds of criminal cases stemming from shootings, including many murders. Too often people described adult and juvenile defendants after the fact as “time bombs” who they feared would one day harm someone.
One heartbreaking experience was presiding over the first court appearance of Craig Stephen Hicks while she was chief District Court judge in 2015, Morey said. Hicks is awaiting trial for the murder of three Muslim college students in the Chapel Hill apartment complex where two of them lived and where he pestered them frequently over parking.
“There were signs his behavior had been getting erratic,” Morey said.
Due to those experiences and to student demands for better gun control after the Parkland, Fl. high school shooting, Morey is co-sponsoring a bill that would introduce extreme-risk-protection orders in this state. The bill would allow judges, after hearings, to require people deemed dangerous to surrender firearms and ammunition to a county sheriff.
Passage is a long shot in a state legislature that in recent years has loosened, not strengthened firearm regulations. But after mass shootings nationally and persistent gun violence across this state, Morey feels compelled to act, she said.
“So many times red flags are thrown up,” said Morey, who said she’s received phone threats at her Raleigh office for trying to advance this bill. “I think this a very conservative approach to expanding gun safety.”
Our death toll
Tony Cope of Apex attended a press conference Morey organized on Tuesday at the General Assembly to show support for House Bill 976.
In 2016 his daughter hid in a bathroom terrified after a man with a shotgun burst into the Apex home of a friend where she had stayed overnight. The man, looking for a woman who had rejected him, fired at windows and a ceiling before breaking into the bathroom. He did not harm Cope’s daughter but the experience took a toll on her well being.
In that case, the gunman had bought his weapon just that morning. But it gave Cope the conviction that police should have the means to remove guns from people who loved ones see could turn violent.
“In the sentencing hearing, his family members said they were trying to get him help. They had called the cops,” Cope said. “The reason he came to the house was that he heard they were going to get a restraining order.”
In 2016 alone, 1,409 people in North Carolina died from gun wounds, a rate of 13.7 per 100,000 that exceeds the national average of 11.8 per 100,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation counted 10,827 firearm assaults that year, a 12 percent increase from 2015.
Among the firearm deaths in 2015 in North Carolina, 62.1 percent were suicides and 34.6 percent were homicide, according to the latest figures from the Injury & Violence Prevention Branch of the state Department of Health and Human Services. A mix of accidental shootings, firearm assaults deemed legal, and shootings resulting from unknown motives made up the rest.
Young men, especially young black men, are at greatest risk of gun violence here. Among women, those facing domestic violence are at greatest risk.
Court order required
House Bill 976 would permit a relative, a romantic partner, a fellow parent, a domestic partner or a legal guardian to petition a court for a risk-protection order. If a judge sees strong evidence that a person in possession of firearms poses danger to him or herself or to others, that person could be required to surrender firearms, ammunition, permits to purchase firearms, and permits to carry concealed firearms to a county sheriff for as long as one year.
If the surrender doesn’t occur, a judge could issue a warrant allowing law enforcement to search the person’s belongings and take all firearms and related possessions to be confiscated.
“This wouldn’t be law enforcement barging in and taking down a door to do a search without a court order,” Morey said. “You have to get a court order.”
Brandon Zuidema, the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police president, said his organization agrees with the core ideas of the red-flag bill but needs to review the language more closely before endorsing it.
Law enforcement already participate in interventions like this when they assist with involuntary commitments for mentally ill people, the Garner police chief said. And the idea of having multiple groups and multiple strategies involved in preventing gun violence appeals.
“We’re not going to police our way out of this,” Zuidema said.
At the press conference Tuesday, Morey said that NC Sheriffs’ Association has notified her that its members support the concept at the heart of the bill too.
Red-flag bills such as House Bill 976 are already law in nine states. Florida, Delaware, Maryland and Vermont passed theirs after the Parkland high school shooting in February injected new energy into gun control activism. Bills proposing these measures have been filed in 11 states, including North Carolina.
Language from the House bill will also be included into an omnibus gun control bill that state Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Raleigh) will introduce this week, Morey said. That measure is expected to include gun control measures that Gov. Roy Cooper supports.
They include requiring background checks to cover purchases of assault weapons such as AR-15 rifles, raising the minimum age for buying such weapons to 21, a ban on bump stock devices that transform semi-automatic rifles into automatic weapons, and expanding mental health training among public school employees.
A steep climb
Because Republicans hold majorities in both houses of the state’s General Assembly, passage would require GOP support.
House Bill 976 is co-sponsored by Democrats only in that chamber, including Pricey Harrison of Greensboro, Grier Martin and Yvonne Lewis Holley of Raleigh, Shelly Willingham of Rocky Mount and William Richardson of Fayetteville, as well as Morey.
Two GOP House members that Morey declined to name have agreed to look over the bill, she said.
Spokespersons for House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) and Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) did not respond to queries Monday about the General Assembly leaders’ position on the House bill.
After the Parkland shootings, Moore did create the House Select Committee on School Safety. It spawned two working groups, one to look at mental health issues and the other to consider physical safety changes that could be made to schools.
Among its recommendations to date, no gun control measures have been included. Instead, they include increasing the number of psychologists, counselors, and nurses in schools; studying a program that would arm student resource officers; and requiring vulnerability assessments for school buildings.
Zuidema, the police chief association president, said his group favors using design changes at schools to limit access by people who may wish to enter and do harm. The association also supports expanded use of armed police officers as school resource officers at schools and an expanded investment in reducing cyberbullying of students to reduce the likelihood of gun violence in schools.