CHARLOTTE – On the federal level, the gun-control debate is now focused on proposed changes to gun legislation, from tightening background checks (given little chance of passage) to efforts to ban military-style assault weapons and limit the capacity of ammunition magazines (given even less).
On the local level, however, in the city neighborhoods where violence doesn’t merit the headlines of Newtown or Aurora, that debate is secondary. The concern there is concentrated on gun violence rather than gun control. At a community conversation in Charlotte on Tuesday evening, a police officer, a doctor and a minister – all experienced in dealing with the daily consequences of young men with guns – led an effort to find solutions.
“Can we talk about gun violence?” was the latest in a series of gatherings, sponsored by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee, the Community Building Initiative (CBI) and Mecklenburg Ministries. The goal is dialogue with disagreement, not demonization. In a hall at Pritchard Baptist Church, the evening began with CBI’s Dianne English acknowledging the bombings at the Boston marathon — not gun-related, she said, but violence nonetheless.
Deputy Chief of Police Kerr Putney outlined the predictable patterns of gun violence that touch certain neighborhoods more than others, with young black men mostly likely the victims and perpetrators. While the statistics make some tune out, he challenged them to make an investment with actions such as mentoring, citing a police department program of intervention for first offenders that is succeeding, with community support.
But guns are a part of American culture, he said, hard-wired into its founding, when “we fought for a reason,” he said, and “used weapons to do it.”
David Jacobs, associate trauma director at Carolinas Medical Center and professor of clinical surgery at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, called interpersonal violence a “disease” of young men of color, and said “it diminishes all of us” with its lost potential and contributions to society. “It’s not going to be solved by a law here and a law there.” Violence is big business, Jacobs said, in music, movies and games.
The film industry has taken notice, announcing changes this week to its rating system. The Motion Picture Association of America said its “Check the Box” campaign, with details on why a movie received its rating, would help parents make informed decisions. That is, if the kids are listening. MPAA CEO Christopher Dodd, who announced the changes Tuesday, for 30 years represented Connecticut, home of Sandy Hook Elementary, in the Senate.
The Rev. Jason Williams, who lives with his family in a neighborhood he said is superficially and incorrectly defined by stereotypes, said there are limits to what most are willing to do because of what we’re afraid of. For the powerless, he said, guns are an accessible and cheap source of gaining power. Williams said he has gotten to know and trust his neighbors.
Charlotte has actually seen a drop in its homicide rate, with last year’s 52 homicides the lowest in 24 years. But each day’s news still brings too many stories of arguments that end in gun violence.
When I spoke with Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx for a story in theGrio.com, he was supportive of many proposed national remedies. He 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 penalties for straw purchases of guns.
But he said it was only a partial solution. “We can’t leave out mental health issues; we can’t leave out issues like the entertainment industry and the violence that gets perpetuated there,” he added. “I do think there’s a role for parents and neighbors and ministers and all of us who interact with our young people to help create a culture of respect, a culture in which violence is shunned. …There’s no law you can pass that’s going to stop it. There’s no amount of control that a public organization can exert that will fool-proof us from this kind of violence.”
In Washington, the approval of background checks for buyers at gun shows and other outlets depends on the votes of a few U.S. senators from both parties, who have to weigh the politics of their support or rejection of the measure, one that polls show the public supports.
Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina has said she supports what she called the “commonsense” compromise reached by colleagues Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). She said in a statement: “It respects law-abiding North Carolina gun owners by exempting transfers between family members and friends, allowing concealed carry permits issued within the past five years to serve in lieu of a background check, and explicitly banning the federal government from creating a registry.”
However, Hagan, facing what is expected to be a tough reelection race in 2014, also said, “I am concerned that amendments banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines could infringe on the rights of lawful gun owners, and I will not support such measures.”
North Carolina’s senior senator, Republican Richard Burr, voted to allow debate on the measure to proceed but has indicated his opposition to the amendment. He said in a statement: “I supported having a debate on the issue of violent crime, but as I made clear from the outset, I will oppose any legislation that chips away at our constitutional rights. After reviewing the current text of the Manchin-Toomey proposal, I have numerous Second Amendment, due process and privacy concerns that make the legislation too problematic for it to ever become law.”
The news will follow the progress of the federal gun bill, the up and down votes and whether filibuster is an option.
In Charlotte on Tuesday night, that debate seemed not only miles but worlds away. The evening ended with more questions than answers, and hope that parents, ministers, volunteers and friends can make a difference and save some lives.
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