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After gun massacre, Charlotte is now ‘one of those cities’

As election season nears, Second Amendment debate will only become more politically charged

Crime scene investigators talk in front of the campus building where a gunman opened fire at the University of North Carolina this week. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Crime scene investigators talk in front of the campus building where a gunman opened fire at the University of North Carolina this week. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

OPINION — CHARLOTTE, N.C. — “Now we’re one of those schools.” That’s what a  University of North Carolina student, in more sadness than anger, told a local radio station after a gunman killed two and wounded four others on her campus on Tuesday. And now Charlotte, a city already experiencing a spike in homicides, is “one of those cities.”

In the city and state, there is shock, plus questions. A suspect is in custody, but that doesn’t provide answers about why it happened and what can be done to keep it from happening again.

That this latest incident did not make it to the top spot in many national news outlets speaks to how commonplace such incidents have become and how frustrated many citizens are. Is the answer more mental health resources, more “good guys with guns,” more regulations and background checks, or something else?

Against this backdrop, the National Rifle Association is undergoing shakeups of its own, with warring leaders (chief executive Wayne LaPierre has won that fight with former president Oliver North), a sprawling mission that now includes NRATV taking stands on issues such as immigration and race as often as guns, and a looming investigation of its finances and nonprofit status by the New York attorney general.

But despite that, expect its GOP politicking and power plays to remain, as the presence of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence as speakers at the NRA’s recent annual meeting makes clear. The organization’s new president, Carolyn Meadows, lives in Georgia’s 6th District, where Democrat Lucy McBath won in 2018 with a campaign that included support of some gun control measures, and Meadows has promised to support McBath’s opponent.

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As usual, Americans looking for reassurance, or at least a discussion and some compromise, won’t get very much of either in a debate that will only grow more politically charged in an election season, especially with parties increasingly divided so evenly into opposite camps.

Several Democratic presidential hopefuls have made the issue their signature, including former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was in office in July 2012 when a gunman in a movie theater killed 12 people and wounded many others. After that incident, Hickenlooper shepherded gun control legislation, including background checks, in the state. Rep. Eric Swalwell also centered the issue in his campaign rollout, saying the Second Amendment does allow for gun control measures.

Sen. Kamala Harris, further up than either in most polls, has said that as president she would sign an executive order that includes regulations for gun manufacturers and restrictions for gun dealers, since legislation proposed in one chamber of Congress has little hope of passing in the other.

In North Carolina, where this latest school shooting has left many in shock, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is up for re-election in 2020. Last year, after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, he said that if there are breakdowns in the current process, “Then we need to talk about the next program for background checks, we need to talk about bump stocks, we need to talk about a number of other things that I think reasonable people are prepared to take action on in Congress.” Tillis, who has received support from the NRA, has also emphasized more mental health resources and has shied away from most gun control restrictions.

Debate in the North Carolina legislature mirrors the national one, with Democrats and Republicans offering dueling proposals, tightening or loosening gun restrictions, and framing the issue as a matter of freedom or safety. Republicans, who held a super-majority they lost in 2018, have filed bills that would expand gun rights, including one that keeps showing up, which would eliminate the state requirement for concealed handgun permits. In the wake of shootings, though, both sides are preaching what looks like impossible bipartisanship.

When bipartisanship fails, frustrated grassroots organizations have continued the discussion. If there is action or compromise, it will be prompted in part by groups such as the Parkland students, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, organizations named for and inspired by Gabrielle Giffords and James Brady, victims of gun violence, and citizens in neighborhoods and cities across the country touched by gun violence.

That list is growing. Tucson, Arizona, where my son was born, became one of those cities, as did the historic city of Charleston, South Carolina, where friends and acquaintances lost those close to them when a murderer killed nine at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015. Shootings in schools, places of worship, in acts of domestic terrorism, in personal disputes or because of imagined grievances unfortunately mean many more places are in danger of becoming one of those cities where no one imagined gun violence could happen.

Charlotte is now in the center of that debate, but if history is any guide, tragically won’t be for long.

The danger is becoming numb to the unacceptable; the goal is to remind our leaders that that is not an option.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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