Even by the standards of The Comet Lounge, a gritty, dark den of iniquity on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, the three people smoking pot on the back deck had worn out their welcome.
The bar staff asked them to leave, and they became belligerent. Two of them started to fight. A third went outside, retrieved a shotgun from his car, brought it back to the bar and pointed it at owner Van Alston.
"One of the employees said, 'What are you going to do? Shoot somebody for asking someone to leave?'" recalls Alston, who owned the club for nine years before it closed in 2008.
The stoned assailants fled down the street. Alston called the cops, who arrested them three blocks away.
"Had someone else been in the bar with a gun," Alston says, "I shudder to think what would have happened."
Alston now owns Slim's, which is among dozens of establishments statewide opting out of a new North Carolina law that allows conceal-carry permit holders to bring handguns into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Many are going gun-free for the comfort of their waitstaff, who would likely have to defuse a potentially violent situation, and their customers, who might prefer to enjoy a cocktail without wondering if the person at the next table is armed. (See below.)
The provision is included in House Bill 937, a 17-page comprehensive firearms measure that became law Oct. 1. The statute prohibits a person carrying a firearm from drinking alcohol onsite, but it also allows bar and restaurant owners to ban weapons as long as a sign notifying customers is prominently displayed in the establishment.
"I actually thought about it: Which way should I go?" says Alston, himself a gun owner. "I tried to imagine any scenario where having an armed customer could be beneficial. I couldn't come up with one."
The law has placed bars and restaurants in the crosshairs of a political and economic battle. Proponents of the gun law, such as Grass Roots North Carolina (GRNC), are organizing boycotts of bars and restaurants that display the No Weapons decal, designating them "high-risk" for "violent predation" because patrons cannot bring guns inside to protect themselves from a possible attack.
NCGunowners.com has resorted to online bullying, calling the eateries "target-rich" and opponents of the law as "aging arm flappers," "fat bitches" and "anti-gun hippies."
Those opponents, including Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, are being targeted by the right wing for canvassing bars and restaurants statewide, discussing the law with owners and giving them No Weapons decals.
"In a struggling economy, to enter this dialogue can be very ugly," says Kaaren Haldeman of Moms Demand Action. "It's unfair that the law put business owners in this position."
In the corner of Bull City Burger and Brewery, a popular restaurant and brewpub in downtown Durham, a sign hangs above a kids' toy kitchen that reads: "future beer drinkers." And on the front window of BCBB, owner Seth Gross has posted a No Weapons decal.
"We try to create a family-friendly environment for people from all walks of life," says Gross, who is opening Pompieri Pizza next door. It too will be gun-free.
"I have no issue with guns, but if you come in with one, I'm going to ask you to lock it in your car."
NCGunowners.com has responded by tagging BCBB as "unfriendly." One commenter, "Foamx," wrote: "I suspect there will be lot of places in Durham at which I will no longer eat."
Gross says he's undeterred by gun proponents' boycott. "It's private property and a private space. I can make rules here," he says. "Is your choice about a good burger or the right to carry a weapon?"
Grass Roots North Carolina has upped the ante. From its online "Defender Arsenal," the group is selling High Risk Restaurant cards that can be used to notify bars and restaurant owners that they have been "reported," giving them a chance to remove the signs. If a merchant refuses to do so, the business is added to a statewide list that is emailed to 87,000 GRNC members.
That's not intended to be intimidating, says Paul Valone, president of GRNC. "I hear that a lot of the time. I'm not out to boycott merchants or deliver threats." He contends his group is merely informing members about which restaurants are safe.
"You have nothing to fear from concealed handgun permit holders, who by virtue of training and background checks, have proven themselves sane, sober and law-abiding," the GRNC card reads.
"I hear hypotheticals about drunks with guns. It's not come to pass," counters Valone, who calls gun-free spaces "victim disarmament zones."
Valone cites an example of an incident he experienced as a teen. He and his father were approached in a restaurant parking lot by three men with baseball bats. His father reached into the car and placed is .32-caliber gun on the roof. The men fled.
National research and epidemiology studies, such as those published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, have shown that the presence of a weapon can increase risk of violence. Add alcohol, says Haldeman of Moms Demand Action, and "it's impossible to predict what could happen."
The N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police agrees. The group opposes the law, calling the presence of concealed weapons where alcohol is served an "unacceptable potential for danger to the public."
"Anytime you mix alcohol and firearms, there's a danger," says George Erwin, executive director of the police chiefs association. He is also concerned about the prevalence of mentally ill people with guns. "Mental health is the biggest issue," said Erwin, a former sheriff in Henderson County. "The vast majority of people in my detention center had mental health issues."
However, the N.C. Sheriffs' Association supports the law, including the bar and restaurant provision. Eddie Caldwell, president of the association, says conceal-carry permit holders are least likely to commit a crime, joking: "They cherish their permit more than their dog, more than their spouse."
More than 379,000 conceal-carry permits are active in North Carolina, according to 2013 state Department of Justice statistics. About 6,600 applications were denied; 2,300 were revoked.
While North Carolina has reciprocity with every state—meaning valid permit holders can carry their guns here—requirements vary and are often less stringent in other jurisdictions. In North Carolina, an eight-hour training course and background check are required. In some states, there is no mandatory training.
"I have a lack of faith that every permit holder will adhere to the law," says Haldeman of Moms Demand Action.
Gun proponents contend that conceal-carry permit holders are not the problem. Yet, that claim is difficult, if not impossible, to prove. In many states, including North Carolina, gun laws have been expanded to make information about permit holders confidential. Without that data, researchers cannot verify who has committed a crime with a weapon.
By analyzing available media and police reports—by no means a comprehensive list—the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group in Washington, D.C., has documented hundreds of incidents involving conceal-carry permit holders in the U.S. since 2007.
Five of the documented crimes involved North Carolina permit holders, including a man in Florida whose conceal-carry permit was issued here. He was convicted and sentenced to death after fatally shooting a police officer.
The shootings involving conceal-carry permit holders in North Carolina killed a total of 10 people. One of the victims was shot at a birthday party at the Hogs Pen Pub in Macclesfield in Edgecombe County, where the assailant was so drunk he couldn't remember the incident.
Alcohol was involved in six shootings at bars or restaurants.
The Gun Report, Joe Nocera's blog in The New York Times, has compiled media reports of gun crimes nationwide since the Newtown, Conn., shooting. Since July, at least a dozen have occurred inside—or in the parking lots of—bars and restaurants in the U.S. (Four people were shot in two incidents over the weekend of Oct. 18.)
Brad Froeschle is a bartender at The Raleigh Times Bar, which has banned weapons. "I agree with Raleigh Times' stance on the law as far as my not feeling safe when weapons and alcohol are mixed," he says.
"Ninety-nine percent of folks wouldn't do anything, but there's a chance that somebody would do something crazy," says Gene Hamer, owner of Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, which has also banned weapons. "People with guns would understand why you wouldn't want anyone with a gun around alcohol."
Most North Carolinians don't want to mix weapons and booze. An Elon University poll conducted in September showed that 73 percent of the 701 registered voters surveyed oppose allowing guns in bars. Democrats, women and African-Americans were the primary groups who opposed the expansion of approved places for permit holders to carry a concealed weapon, the survey concluded. In general, Republicans, men and whites supported the idea.
On a sunny afternoon outside Raleigh Times, several diners agree that while people should be allowed to carry guns, they shouldn't bring them into bars.
"It's probably not a good idea," says Deborah Jeffreys Gruder. "I think it's fine for people to bear arms if they bear good sense. That's reasonable. But when people drink, they're not always using good judgment. Things can escalate in ways they wouldn't otherwise."
"I think it's a citizen's right to carry a gun, but it should come down to local governments," adds Jeremiah Sloop. "People should be allowed to get out and decide what they want for their area. People need to let their legislators know how they feel about this. That's why they're there. If there's outcry over any accidents that happen, we need to tell them that's enough."
It's not just drunks wielding firearms that are dangerous; so are accidental discharges. From 2005–2010, 3,800 people in the U.S. died of unintentional shootings, 1,300 of them under age 25, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco, which cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Caldwell of the Sheriffs' Association dismisses that scenario as unlikely. "Martians could invade the bar and take your gun, too. Or Superman could bend it in half and shoot someone."
Space invaders or wayward superheroes aside, Alston of Slim's says his no-weapons policy stands. "I have no interest in cleaning up after a gunfight. It's bad enough when chairs get broken."
Additional reporting by Jane Porter.
A burger, hold the bullets
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America is compiling a list of restaurants and bars in North Carolina that prohibit guns in their establishments. See the statewide list at ncgunfreedining.blogspot.com.
Some restaurant owners still might not be aware of the law, so diners concerned about the issue should ask the management about their policy. The INDY contacted several eateries that do not have decals to ask about their weapons policy, but those calls and emails were not returned by press time.
Here are places in the Triangle, as of Oct. 22, that have banned weapons:
APEX Little Caesar's, Corner Tavern at Beaver Creek, Little Hen
CARRBORO Second Wind, Venable, Amante Gourmet Pizza
CHAPEL HILL Tarantini, Zog's Pool Hall, Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe, Four Corners, Spanky's, Chopsticks & More, Artisan Pizza Kitchen, Bandito's, Mei Asia, Bski's, City Kitchen, Nightlight, Linda's Bar & Grill, Chola Nad, Blue Horn Lounge, Crook's Corner, Foster's Market, Nantucket Grill & Bar, Jujube, Bin 54, Piola, Tobacco Road
DURHAM Moe's Southwestern Grill, Beyu Caffe, West End Wine Bar, Pulcinella's, Elmo's, Charlies' Pub and Grill, Bull City Burger and Brewery, Domino's Pizza, Motorco Music Hall, Nantucket Grill & Bar, City Beverage, Tyler's Restaurant and Taproom, Tobacco Road Sports Cafe, Cocoa Cinnamon
HILLSBOROUGH Panciuto, Radius Pizzeria & Pub, Gulf Rim Cafe, Antonia's
RALEIGH Slim's, Whole Foods, City Limits Saloon, Pour House Music Hall, Players' Retreat, Wild Wing Cafe, On the Border, Tobacco Road Sports Cafe, Tir na nOg, Busy Bee, Trophy Brewing
SAXAPAHAW Haw River Ballroom
WAKE FOREST My Place Restaurant, The Real McCoys Restaurant
TRIANGLEWIDE California Pizza Kitchen, Chili's, Fox & Hound Group, Buffalo Wild Wings
How the Triangle voted on guns
House Bill 937, which amends the state's firearms laws, passed on July 23 and took effect on Oct. 1.
The new state law contains several provisions, including one advanced by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that allows permit holders to bring guns into public parks.
Another part of the statute allows people with permits to bring their weapons into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. The bill passed 32–14 in the Senate and 73–41 in the House.
Here are the Triangle lawmakers and their votes on the bill:
FOR allowing guns in bars and restaurants
Chad Barefoot (R-Wake), Neal Hunt (R-Wake)
Tamara Barringer (R-Wake) did not vote.
Marilyn Avila (R-Wake), Nelson Dollar (R-Wake), Jim Fulghum (R-Wake), Chris Malone (R-Wake), Tom Murry (R-Wake), Paul Stam (R-Wake)
AGAINST allowing guns in bars and restaurants
Dan Blue III (D-Wake), Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange/Chatham), Floyd McKissick Jr. (D-Durham), Josh Stein (D-Wake), Mike Woodard (D-Durham)
Valerie Foushee (D-Durham/Orange), Rosa Gill (D-Wake), Duane Hall (D-Wake), Larry Hall (D-Durham), Yvonne Holley (D-Wake), Verla Insko (D-Orange), Grier Martin (D-Wake), Darren Jackson (D-Wake), Paul Luebke (D-Durham), Deborah McManus (D-Chatham), Mickey Michaux (D-Durham)
This article appeared in print with the headline "Appetite for destruction."
Corrections: Gene Hamer is the owner (not co-owner) of Crook's Corner; Valerie Foushee is a Democrat (not Republican); Grier Martin is in the House (not Senate).