News Column

Killings Rekindle Gun Law Debate

Dec 18, 2012

Travis Fain

There is no clear path forward to prevent school shootings like the one that happened Friday in Connecticut.

It remains to be seen whether the political will exists to amend gun laws or to bolster mental health services that are often decided state by state.

There were indications Monday that long-standing opposition to tighter gun laws may be softening after a man slaughtered 26 people, including 20 small children, but local members of Congress cautioned against expectations of sweeping policy change.

Republicans control the U.S. House of Representatives, and a vocal minority of extreme gun advocates make up an important part of the Republican base, said U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, a Raleigh Democrat whose district reaches into Guilford County. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the Second Amendment also limit Congress' power to tighten gun laws, U.S. Rep. Mel Watt said.

"You've got to be very careful about creating this impression that all of a sudden we're going to do something in an area that has some very practical constraints to it," Watt, a Charlotte Democrat, said in a telephone interview.

At the state level, N.C. Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, backed an idea often heard from gun enthusiasts: arming school administrators. Brandon said he'd prefer to see stricter gun laws nationwide, including limits on magazine sizes and a ban on the most destructive rifles.

But Brandon said he doesn't see those changes passing, leaving gun-free school zones as easy targets in a country with an estimated 270-million-plus firearms in circulation.

Brandon said he wouldn't require administrators to carry weapons, but the state could allow it.

"A gun can do a lot," Brandon said. "And only another gun can stop it."

Other state legislators and congressional representatives weren't so specific. Incoming legislators Trudy Wade and Jon Hardister, both Republicans elected in November to represent Guilford County in the General Assembly, said they'll wait to see what comes of the debate. And though gun laws are most often a federal issue and the White House has promised new legislation, that debate will likely occur in the state legislature, too.

"I think we've got to do something," said state Sen. Tom Apodaca, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which has a major say in what issues move forward in Raleigh.

"To be perfectly candid with you, I don't know (what)," Apodaca said. "It's not just a gun problem -- it is definitely a mental health issue. I am just at a total loss, but I'm willing to learn."

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat, called Monday for "a common-sense debate on a comprehensive approach that looks at access to guns, including laws that may have already been on the books, access to mental health care, and violent video games." In an emailed statement, Hagan promised to review proposals "with an open mind, ensuring that they will improve the safety of our communities without restricting the rights of responsible gun owners."

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, said the shooting "highlights the need to provide care and treatment for mentally ill and unstable individuals and continue to work to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals."

"We must embrace a comprehensive approach -- including supporting our law enforcement community, teachers, and mental health professionals -- to prevent events like this from happening and keep our children safe," Burr said in an emailed statement.

U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, a longtime Greensboro Republican, said the mental health side of the issue "may well deserve a detailed second look." Coble also said an assault weapons ban and other federal gun laws on the books from 1994 to 2004 "may need additional examination," but he was "reluctant" to say new laws are needed.

Miller, who did not seek re-election, said mental health issues plague countries around the world, but the United States stands apart with so many mass shootings.

He backed a renewal of the 1994 ban on some rifles, as well as high-capacity magazines.

"Obviously Americans are entitled to guns," Miller said. "But the kinds of guns that were used in Newtown, Connecticut, at Sandy Hook Elementary ... are well beyond what anyone would want for hunting or for self-defense."

The shooter in Connecticut used several weapons -- all legal to own -- including an assault rifle equipped with 30-round magazines.

Authorities said there's little more lawmakers can do. Sheriff BJ Barnes said his office does a good job of reviewing concealed-carry and handgun license requests, screening for criminal histories and mental health issues.

Greensboro police Capt. Mike Richey, head of the department's criminal investigations division, said Greensboro police seize 600-800 guns a year. He couldn't say how many of those are as powerful as the main weapon in the Connecticut shooting, which used bullets designed to maximize damage.

Richey said it's impossible to say how many people in our area are capable of a mass shooting, but Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann said it's "not common at all" to see mental problems of that depth in the court system.

Said Richey: "This is tragedy that comes from the juncture of mental health, family issues, gun control laws and societal well-being. Any of those ... are complex in and of themselves. When you add them all in together perfectly to create this storm, then there's not much to be able to stop. We can't control what's in someone's heart."

Source: (c)2012 News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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