Greensboro residents talking about guns, guns, guns

by Eric Ginsburg

Fervent proclamations about gun rights and violence haven’t waned since the Newtown, Conn. massacre, and last week advocates held dueling events in Greensboro to advance their agendas. A gun rights membership drive and an antigun violence press conference on March 26 and 28 highlighted the NC General Assembly’s consideration of legislation to increase concealed carry holders’ privacy and the US Congress contemplation of universal background checks for firearm purchases.

Standing in front of about 50 people at the Greater Greensboro Republican Women’s Club meeting last week at Starmount Country Club, gun rights proponent John Landreth explained several pieces of statewide pro-gun legislation. Landreth, a spokesperson for Grass Roots North Carolina — a volunteer-run group that writes and lobbies for pro-gun state laws — spent the majority of his keynote speech pitching the reasons to join their cause at a special membership rate. By the end of the meeting, a stack of applications and checks sat on the table before him.

“It’s under attack, you know; you read about it all the time,” Landreth said, speaking about the Second Amendment.

As he answered questions and explained various pieces of gun legislation, including a bill that would allow people to bring concealed carry firearms into businesses selling alcohol, Republican women club members whispered to each other about their intentions to join.

Audience questions suggested more fear of an attack on gun rights than Landreth’s responses, but some of his comments indicated the possibility of worse to come. Several attendees were concerned about a rumor that doctors were being required to ask children if their parents had a gun at home, an Landreth trained them how to respond.

“That is a boundary violation,” he told them to say. “It hasn’t been federally mandated — yet.”

As an organization, Grass Roots’ largest push recently has been around “concealed carry in restaurants” — Landreth’s dubbing of legislation to allow firearms in establishments that sell alcohol — but the language was recently taken out of House Bill 17.

NC Rep. John Hardister (R-Guilford), a sponsor of the bill, said it makes sense to remove the portion about guns in restaurants to tackle it separately and focus the legislation on keeping the list of concealed carry permit holders confidential.

“The restaurant concealed carry was definitely a lot more controversial,” he said. “Historically, people who have a concealed carry permit are very unlikely to commit a crime carrying a firearm.”

When an attendee at the Republican women’s meeting asked Landreth about how supportive state representatives and senators were of Grass Roots’ various gun legislation, the spokesperson said firstterm Republicans were generally more supportive than their more tenured colleagues. Hardister, a freshman Republican, said he is supportive of concealed carry in restaurants and that taking it on separately will give lawmakers a chance to discuss specifics. He added that venues would be able to prohibit firearms in their establishment.

The Durham-based North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, which has members throughout the state, opposed House Bill 17 before and after the restaurant concealed carry portion was removed.

Executive Director Gail Neely said that while she considers it unwise for newspapers to publish a list of concealed carry permit owners, as a few out-of-state publications have done, it is a matter of public record.

“When someone is applying for a permit to do something publicly, the public has a right to know,” Neely said, adding that her organization is more concerned with adding a requirement that gun purchase information be automatically handed over to law enforcement rather than being made available upon request.

Neely said the change would prepare law enforcement officers to know what they were getting into if they were responding to a call and someone had stockpiled weapons or if a domestic violence situation potentially had a firearm in play.

Several dozen Greensboro residents gathered March 28 to stand alongside Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter in a press conference calling for universal background checks and stricter laws against assault weapons. Existing laws require background checks in most gun purchases but some loopholes, like consumers buying at gun shows or from unlicensed sellers, need fixing, proponents say. The event was part of a national day of action coordinated by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Johnson called for “stringent” and “comprehensive” background checks and said that the Newtown shootings impacted her deeply.

“I couldn’t stop crying,” Johnson said. “I thought about my seven grandchildren.”

Abuzuaiter said if she went through a background check to adopt a pet it made sense to require one for firearm purchases. Mayor Robbie Perkins, one of the 900 mayors who are part of the coalition, could not be at the event but echoed Abuzuaiter’s sentiment.

“I am all in favor of having some sort of background check for people buying guns because I just think that’s good common sense in the society in which we live,” Perkins said.

After hearing from Dana Hines and her daughter — whose father was killed by gun violence, an event coordinator asked attendees to call US Sen. Kay Hagan’s office to urge her to support laws to reduce gun violence.

Hagan spokesperson Chris Moyer said the senator’s vote will depend on the “final details” of the legislation that is put forward. He said the Senate is expected to begin debating the bill the week of April 8.

“The senator believes that the idea of expanding background checks makes a lot of sense,” Moyer said, but he declined to elaborate.

Grass Roots North Carolina blasted Hagan’s stance on its website, saying she was “out of the closet” on gun control and saying universal background checks are step towards making someone a criminal “for something as inoffensive as leaving a gun at home with your spouse.”

Not everyone falls neatly into the two camps trying to decrease gun violence or maintain and expand gun rights, as several local Republicans have proven. Hardister said he would need to look at the specifics of the bill but said universal background checks are “extremely reasonable” and “necessary.” Republican Sheriff BJ Barnes agreed.

“I have no problem with background checks,” he said. “I think from a mental health standpoint, we need to be doing that.”

Referencing mass shootings, Barnes said more money and time need to be spent on comprehensive mental health resources.

While increased resources are a necessity, Mental Health Association of Greensboro Program Director Mary Seymour said, there isn’t a link between mental health and shooting sprees. Instead, people with mental health issues are four times more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators.

“It just feels like a further stigma that’s not even warranted,” she said, adding that she was diagnosed as bipolar in 1995 but that it doesn’t make her a threat to society. “I sort of have a personal stake in this misrepresentation.”

Seymour, who spoke on a panel about reducing gun violence last month, said the media perpetuates a miscorrelation between mental health and gun violence. She said the volume of articles that discuss mental illness as a potential cause for shootings outnumbers ones covering people with mental illnesses as victims of violent crimes by a ratio of 13 to 1.

Barnes was invited to address a recent Conservatives for Guilford County meeting about a perceived federal threat to gun owners, but the sheriff said the group’s fears are misplaced. The tea party-inspired organization could not be reached for comment, but Barnes said members were worried the Obama administration intended to come and take people’s guns. Those fears are stoked by organizations seeking to profit off the hysteria, he said.

“It’s always followed by a request for money to help you continue the fight,” Barnes said. “It’s kind of like tilting at windmills — there’s no fight there yet.”

Barnes said he opposes “ill-conceived” federal legislation like the proposed assault weapons ban that is based on scoring points with constituents rather than reducing gun violence, adding that at least 81 percent of gun fatalities involved a handgun while under 8 percent were associated with a rifle of any kind.

“We’re talking about feel-good legislation here to say they did something,” Barnes said.

Like Hardister, Barnes said he has no problem with concealed carry in restaurants that serve alcohol as long as the holder wasn’t drinking and that the list of permit-holders should not be public record. Barnes and Hardister both said criminals could use the list for nefarious purposes, with Barnes saying people break into homes looking for guns, drugs and money. Neely, with North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, said there is no evidence that previously published lists led to targeted crimes against people who were or were not armed.

While Neely’s organization continues to push for policy on a state level and residents associated with Mayors Against Illegal Guns collect signatures and make phone calls to senators like Hagan, Landreth said organizations like his benefit from an unfocused opposition.

Gun enthusiasts will keep making calls and introducing legislation too, but as the weather warms they’ll take on small-scale changes and challenges as well.

Landreth will switch from shooting his winter weapon of choice to a smaller, summer firearm that his wife calls his “bikini gun,” he told a Republican woman as she turned in a membership check after his speech. On April 12, Republican Women’s Club members will join a “Girls with Guns” shooting competition, Sheriff Barnes’ wife Dena said at the club’s meeting. Enthusiastic exclamations arose from the audience as she announced the winner’s prize: a pistol with a pink handgrip.