New gun laws divide North Carolina

Concealed weapons now allowed at schools, playgrounds and bars, prompting safety concerns for many

Larry Hyatt, owner of Hyatt Guns in Charlotte, says 40 percent of his sales are a result of the state's concealed-carry laws.
Kimberly Johnson for Al Jazeera America

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Business is booming at Hyatt Guns.

Inside the strip-mall gun shop, wedged between a Habitat for Humanity thrift store and a Family Dollar along a West Charlotte highway dotted with check-cashing spots and aging motels, employees wait on the layer of customers in front of the glass cases. Behind the glass are yards of handguns, neatly lined up with barrels pointed out, awaiting scrutiny under the fluorescent glare. During a lull, workers dress up the black matte barrel of a military-style AR-15 tactical rifle with an oversized metallic bow nearly a foot across.

It’s not unusual to sell 100 guns in a day, said Larry Hyatt, the second-generation owner of the shop, which bills itself as the biggest gun specialty store in the U.S. Those average sale figures, however, have little to do with holiday shopping and everything to do with customers’ making use of North Carolina’s concealed-carry laws, which Hyatt said drives about 40 percent of his business.

The state’s recent expansion of those laws bode well for gun makers and sellers and have become a victory for gun activists. In October, concealed weapons became legal inside bars and restaurants serving alcohol and on college and school campuses, provided they are locked in vehicles. The new law (PDF) also allows concealed weapons in parks and on playgrounds and strips municipalities of power to regulate firearms.

State residents may apply for permits if they are 21, take an eight-hour course and pass background checks.

The move, largely a slam dunk for the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and governor’s office, has ignited fierce opposition from those arguing for greater regulation in the name of public safety.

“These laws were necessary because there were some real gaps in the law,” Hyatt said of the concealed-carry expansion. “If someone had a concealed carry and they were picking up their kids at school or dropping them off, they could inadvertently become a criminal just by doing a drive through to pick the kids up.”

In separate legislation, law-enforcement officials are now prevented from destroying unclaimed guns that have serial numbers and are in good working order. Those guns, typically seized or used as evidence, will now be sold to a licensed gun dealer with proceeds funneling back to the law-enforcement agency. The law (PDF) strips judges and law enforcement of using their discretion in deciding the fate of unclaimed guns — a measure heavily endorsed by the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Fear factor

North Carolina had 240,000 active concealed-weapon permit holders (PDF) in early 2012, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. There are more than 8 million permit holders in the U.S.

“There’s tremendous demand,” driven by the fear of crime, Hyatt said. “The two fastest-growing parts of concealed carry are women and senior citizens because both groups are a little more vulnerable.”

During the first four months after last year’s mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., Hyatt’s sales quadrupled, to about 300 guns per day.

“In fact, the whole gun industry sold out of everything,” he said. “That’s the fear factor that came out.”

Statistically, however, the presence of handguns can represent more — not less — vulnerability, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Women are twice as likely to be killed by an intimate partner than by a stranger and face five times the risk of murder if their partner is abusive and owns a gun. 

Gun culture

This time of year is difficult, painful, Effie Steele admitted. Six years ago this month, her 21-year-old daughter, Ebony, was shot three times in the chest and left by the side of a desolate road. Her murderer was the father of her unborn child, following through on threats Steele said he made upon learning of the pregnancy.

The availability of guns can easily escalate a situation, she said, railing against the new disposition law allowing for guns used in crimes to be sold by police and put back into circulation.

“What are you trying to do?” she said. “If you’re trying to save lives, you don’t want to put more guns in the hands of people. If you’re trying to make money, then you can come up with any argument. Most people don’t even know that we have these laws on the books.”

Tragic accidents and carelessness among gun owners have made headlines in the state in recent months, giving heft to calls for more regulation. In August a mother with a concealed-carry permit who was shopping with her toddler in a Staples store shot herself in the hand after her child grabbed for the handgun in her purse. In late October an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle left leaning against a gun cabinet was reported stolen from the unlocked garage of U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C. In November a 4-year-old boy in Fayetteville was killed while playing with a loaded handgun he found on top of his family’s refrigerator. His father, a soldier at Fort Bragg, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and failure to secure a firearm. It was the second gun-related death of a toddler in two months in Fayetteville.

Behind car accidents, gunshot wounds are the second leading cause of death for children, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. In 2010 more than 18,000 kids and teenagers were hurt or killed by guns in the U.S., the organization said.

“For years I’ve been very concerned over the proliferation and easy accessibility and easy availability for everybody to get a gun,” said recently retired state Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird, a Democrat. After serving 17 years in the General Assembly, she said she decided to leave after realizing her voice was getting lost in the Republican-controlled legislature and with a Republican governor in office.

“There is a culture in the South that believes in individual liberties and freedom from government interference,” Kinnaird said. “Guns symbolize that freedom.”

Boycotts and bullying

While the new laws leave city governments hamstrung on regulation, private businesses are allowed to ban concealed weapons. Those that do so, however, risk intense push-back from gun advocates like Grass Roots North Carolina. The organization is publicly identifying and urging members to pressure what it calls high-risk businesses to change their stance through boycotts and direct communication.

“Why would you carry a gun in a bar if you can’t drink with it?” asked a bar owner in Fayetteville who has posted a sign prohibiting concealed weapons but did not want to be identified for fear of harassment. The owner, whose business is near Fort Bragg, estimated that the majority of his customers have concealed-carry permits.

“They don’t carry in my place,” he said. “If you have a license, you can’t carry a gun and drink. That’s the law, and any responsible gun owner knows that. People come here because they know we’re safe.”

Pro–gun lobbying turned into harassment that left a mayoral candidate feeling physically threatened after the November election. Jackie Holcombe, who had been mayor of Morrisville for four years and earlier this year asked a local sporting-goods store to limit semiautomatic-weapon sales, found herself on the receiving end of NRA ire after she initiated a town meeting to discuss the new state law permitting guns on playgrounds.

A mailer was sent out targeting her involvement with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, associating her with city leaders who had been convicted of crimes or were under investigation. Then there were the threats and taunts posted online. One person posted on a gun blog that he or she had been within feet of her in a store with a concealed weapon and had considered approaching her to let her know. Almost two weeks after she lost the election, a person boasting of buying guns and ammunition at a local sporting-goods store tagged her in a tweet.

“I did take that as a direct threat,” she said. “The election is over.”

Her loss in the election was seen as a victory for the gun-rights community, with the NRA’s lobbying arm touting the “defeat of this anti-gun extremist.”

But Holcombe said she still doesn’t understand the NRA’s interest in the Morrisville race, which drew only about 2,500 voters. Despite losing the election, she said she’s committed to working for greater regulation.

“If you go to a playground, what are the chances the mom or dad next to you is carrying a gun?” she said. “Accidents happen, and to think they won’t happen on playgrounds is irresponsible. The veiled threats don’t move the discussion forward. If anything, they make the discussion more important.”

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