"A child is shot in this country every 30 minutes." Kaaren Haldeman, leader of the North Carolina chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, is addressing an unusually reticent Chapel Hill Town Council.
"While we've been sitting here, a child has been shot and killed," says Haldeman, whose group advocates for tighter gun control laws. "Accidents, negligence, intentional shootings. More guns in more places mean more gun injury and death."
Haldeman's pointed statements come moments after a representative for Raleigh-based gun activists Grass Roots N.C. promised to sue the Town of Chapel Hill if officials opt out of several ordinance changes that would align town code with North Carolina's controversial new gun law.
Passed last year by a Republican majority in the N.C. General Assembly, the law took effect Oct. 1, 2013. It limits a municipality's ability to prohibit people with valid conceal-carry permits from bringing handguns to public spaces, including parks and greenways. As of now, town ordinances do just that. But a draft ordinance distributed at the meeting opens up 17 public spaces, including local playgrounds, to permit holders.
"This is not what Chapel Hill is about," Lee Nackman of Chapel Hill says. "This is not what the people of Chapel Hill want to see."
Local government meetings such as this are the new battleground for gun policy in North Carolina. And Chapel Hill, one of the state's bastions of liberalism, is the most recent focal point.
"Liberals can whine all they want," Grass Roots N.C. President Paul Valone said in an interview Monday with the INDY. "I really don't care. That's all it is. It's just whining."
Town leaders have several questions about the law: Should private property owners who grant land easements for town greenways be forced to allow gun-holders on their land?
Can guns be carried on town buses, which are, in part, federally funded?
"Pre-Oct. 1, it was very clear that you couldn't carry a firearm on a bus in Chapel Hill," said Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. "Since Oct. 1, we just don't know if that's true anymore."
Valone's group, which bills itself as North Carolina's only "no compromise" gun rights organization and credits itself for writing last year's sweeping gun legislation, has made similar legal threats in Raleigh, Morrisville, Winston-Salem, Asheville, Charlotte and, most recently, the small Forsyth County town of Kernersville.
Grass Roots N.C. is well known for its bullish techniques. In 2012, the group posted a partial home address and linked to the online family photos of a WRAL reporter who published a map of licensed gun owners. The report did not include identifying information for the permit holders, only a red dot on a map. Since the law was passed, that map has been removed from WRAL's website.
The group also takes credit for launching a successful campaign last year to oust former Morrisville Mayor Jackie Holcombe, who had publicly stated her opposition to the state's new gun law.
"We do make a point of going after politicians, regardless of win, lose or draw," Valone said. "We will come after them. We will bleed them of money. It's a rather bruising process."
"The days when local bureaucrats can ignore state law with respect to gun rights is over," Valone added. "I say it again, over."
Kleinschmidt said he does not feel threatened by Valone's overtures. "Chapel Hill is often used as a barometer to test messages from either side of the aisle," he said. "It's not a place where either the council or the community feels uncomfortable. If the idea is to make us feel uncomfortable by filling up our inbox, they're not going to be successful. This is not a community that is easily intimidated."
Town Council postponed a vote on the ordinance; Kleinschmidt has asked town staff to prepare "lawful" suggestions for amending ordinances. "We are not going to have something that is a violation of state law," he said. "But it's also important to us that the values of our community that are being offended are being expressed."
Councilman Ed Harrison said it's the precedent set by the General Assembly that worries local governments. "It reinforces the situation in North Carolina of not having control over our cities and towns," Harrison said. "The General Assembly is taking away more of it."
Valone countered that municipalities cannot make their own rules because it would create a "patchwork quilt" of firearms regulations across the state. "Lawful gun owners could be made into criminals," he said.
The Town Council's next business meeting is slated for 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 27, although it's unclear if the firearms ordinance will be ready for that meeting, town staff say. In the meantime, Councilman Lee Storrow said town leaders should not allow a legal threat to force them into voting contrary to the community's standards.
"We've litigated before," Storrow said. "We litigated about cellphone use while driving. While that's an important topic, I think standing up to gun violence is even more important."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Loaded for bear."