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By Catherine Clabby, NC Health News
Dangers from gun owners who turn violent are not abstractions to N.C. Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham.
During her 18 years as a District Court judge, she 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, Florida, 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 guns 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 that morning. But it gave Cope the conviction that police should have the means to remove guns from people who, loved ones think, could turn violent.
“In the sentencing hearing, his family members said they were trying to get him help,” Cope said. “They had called the cops. 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 homicides, according to 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 people in possession of firearms endanger themselves or others, the law could require them 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 the 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.
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