CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In a mostly blue city in a mostly red state, a crowd of several hundred filled a theater for a community conversation called “Voices in the Gun Debate.” It was cordial, which is more than you can say for much of the national dialogue that has NRA leadership and gun control advocates giving little ground in language or policy. But at evening’s end, there weren’t many conversions, either.
The Tuesday night conversation was one in a series on hot topics sponsored by Charlotte NPR affiliate WFAE, with gun shop owner Larry Hyatt and U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, a Democrat who represents the state’s 12th Congressional District, sharing a stage.
While everyone was in favor of reducing gun violence in America, there was little agreement on the best way to accomplish that goal.
The calls to take another look at gun regulations in the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., bolstered Hyatt’s business, with “three years of product purchased in just a few weeks,” he said. If you take away gun rights, he said, it still doesn’t do anything to protect our children. “If you ban a whole class of firearms, what have you really done?” he asked. Emotional responses to these massacres result in “some of the worst laws imaginable,” he said.
Watt said he was looking for solutions and willing to listen, rejecting the expectations of those who came expecting to find ‘a left-wing gun control person,’ ” he said. “I’m trying to find a solution to gun violence.” After Newton, Tucson and Aurora, Colo., made it a national issue, he said, “do nothing” is not an appropriate response.
When asked, Watt said he was not a gun owner, information he doesn’t hide or volunteer because, the Yale law school graduate said, people seem to think you are unsympathetic to constitutional imperatives or gun owners if you’re not one yourself. “I’m a member of the Christian faith,” he said, and “I don’t wear that on my sleeve, either.”
Most of the evening was devoted to comments, questions and challenges from the audience, on everything from whether gun-free zones lure those bent on committing gun violence to the link between violence in cities and the lack of opportunities for young men.
It always returned to the central disagreement of when constraints on gun ownership turn from reasonable measures into the loss of Second Amendment rights. The division was not along the strict lines you might expect if you have only listened to talking points from talking heads.
David Baucom drew laughs when he prefaced his defense of gun owners’ rights by describing himself as a pro-choice, pro-gay vegan who “loves San Francisco and Paris.” The former business owner summed up his position this way: “The real gun control we need is this: getting control of the biggest gun on the table — the government’s gun — which is being used ever more to violate individual liberty, the recent encroachments on the Second Amendment just being one example.”
He was countered by a “Southern, white male” – that’s how he put it when it was his turn at the microphone – who said he was a fan of football, beer, pizza and bourbon and was “furious with the NRA.”
Women showed up, both gun owners and others such as Suzanne Rallis, who said Newtown “hit me like a brick.” The mother of four boys is a leader of the North Carolina southwest chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The national organization was founded as One Million Moms for Gun Control two months ago in the wake of Newtown, with a mission to urge legislators to take action on “new and stronger common-sense gun laws,” including banning assault weapons and ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, requiring background checks for gun and ammunition purchases, reporting the sale of large quantities of ammunition to the ATF and banning online sales of ammunition.
Rallis said Tuesday’s discussion was “a little bit discouraging” because it kept coming back to the same back-and-forth and “nobody’s mind is going to be changed.”
Unlike in the president’s hometown of Chicago, Charlotte doesn’t usually make headlines for gun violence. Last year in Charlotte, the number of homicides decreased to 52, the lowest in 24 years. And incidences of gun violence, on a downward trajectory since 2006, have dropped in half since then, according to numbers from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
But in the city and state, debate on the underlying causes of gun violence and possible remedies is unlikely to cool.
Mayor Anthony Foxx has signed an open letter from the U.S. Conference of Mayors to the president and Congress calling on them to enact legislation to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and strengthen the national background check system and the penalties for straw purchases of guns. He spoke with Vice President Biden in the weeks before the administration rolled out its plan, and in an interview this month, Foxx told me that he and the group will continue to be “a sounding board and a resource.” He said he will also be talking with federal agencies charged with implementing and promoting some of the policies and regulatory changes the president supports.
Foxx said, “One of things that I’ve asked for is where we buy munitions and firearms, because I want to know to what extent we are tacitly supporting this massive lobby that is making it harder for us to reach a sensible answer on gun control.” He said the city also continues to support school resource officers. “Police officers play a vital role in preempting a lot of violence that would happen otherwise.” Foxx also talked about mental health issues, the entertainment industry’s promotion of violence and family support for young people to reject violence.
After Tuesday’s event, though many lingered to continue the conversation, it was clear that the middle ground Watt tried to walk will be difficult as he returns to Washington to make sense and progress in the gun debate.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3