The Great Gun Debate
One day in October 2015, Mark Carman arrived to a Big Lots parking lot in Portsmouth, Va., with $500 in his hand to meet someone he’d found online to buy a gun for his son. His son had just graduated from the police academy and needed an off-duty weapon.
He contemplated the absurdity of it all later — going to meet a stranger whom you know is packing a gun.
Carman is a broad-shouldered veteran and former police officer with a thick Southern drawl. That day, he found himself feeling a new responsibility when a 26-year-old student fatally shot and killed a professor and eight students in a classroom at Umpqua Community College in Oregon and injured several others.
On the other side of the country, Carman watched President Barack Obama — whom he didn’t vote for, twice — on the news asking gun owners for help, and Carman began questioning what he thought he knew.
“Being a firearms owner, I said, you know what, I gotta say something,” he said.
Two days later, Carman made a YouTube video. It opens with a handgun held sidelong inches from the camera, obscuring his face.
“That’s a semi-automatic handgun,” he says. “And I own it. And I like it. You could own one too. In fact you could own this very one. All you’d have to do is come over to my house with the right money, and I could just hand it to you standing on my front porch.”
Because of his background, Carman believes he brings a unique perspective to gun regulation efforts in the South. Although his YouTube video got him 1.8 million views in 10 days and a visit to the White House, it also drew vitriol from the online community passionate about the Second Amendment.
“I’ve been called so many things I’ve forgotten what I actually am,” Carman said.
Like Carman, some people respond to mass shootings by calling for tighter regulations. Most with his background respond by buying more guns, citing the ability to practice self defense and the threat of limiting legislation. Advocacy groups such as Moms Demand Action and Americans for Responsible Solutions emerged in the weeks following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, calling for gun legislation reform.
In turn, gun sales tend to increase after tragedies. The number of FBI background checks to purchase a firearm rose by about 68 percent in the two months after the Umpqua Community College shooting, according to data from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The ebb and flow of gun sales and activist efforts show the two most salient opinions to maintain public safety with gun ownership.
Gun ownership has declined in the U.S. — from an average of about 46 percent of households having at least one gun in the 1970s to 31 percent in 2014, according to a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, an independent research institution at the University of Chicago.
The NORC report attributes the decline in household gun ownership to a decline in the popularity of hunting — in 1977, about 32 percent of adults surveyed reported being hunters or married to a hunter. In 2014, it was 15 percent.
Another survey published in the scientific journal “Injury Prevention” in 2015 found that about one-third of American households own guns. The current gun ownership rate is 29 percent in North Carolina, lower than its Southern neighbors — 44 percent in South Carolina and 39 percent in Tennessee.
According to Centers for Disease Control data, several Southern states have some of highest rates of firearm mortality, including Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. North Carolina ranks 23rd.
Carman grew up outside of Beckley, a small town deep in southern West Virginia’s coal country. He received his first gun at 10 years old — a 12-gauge shotgun. At 11, his father bought him a 8-millimeter Mauser with a range of 300 yards, which gained popularity during World War II. That same year his father died.
Growing up in the 1960s, Carman said it wasn’t uncommon for a child to bring a rifle to school on the bus, then put it in his locker for the day before riding home with a friend to go squirrel hunting in the backyard. He grew up learning how to handle firearms from his father and uncles.
“When I was 12, me and my friends, we’d tell our moms on Friday night, we’re going hunting in the morning. We’d just take off with our guns,” Carman said. “But to us, a gun wasn’t much more than a shovel. I could kill you with a shovel. But we didn’t think about it that way.”
Carman said he thinks times have changed. Kids today don’t necessarily have the same exposure to hunting and can grow up and purchase guns without any experience handling them.
A study by the Pew Research Center shows a shift in the reasons Americans give for gun ownership. In 1999, 49 percent of gun owners surveyed said they owned a gun for hunting, and 26 percent said they owned one for protection. By 2013, those numbers nearly flipped, with 48 percent of owners stating protection and 32 percent stating hunting.
In the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an individual’s Second Amendment right to own a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, including self-defense. The Heller decision was applied to the states in 2010 with McDonald v. City of Chicago.
No legislation to regulate guns was introduced by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2016.
“State legislatures have been either unable or unwilling to create gun control legislation,” said Rick Glazier, executive director of the North Carolina Justice Center and former member of the House of Representatives. “There’s been a lot of action taken by (state) courts to narrowly uphold Heller and McDonald.”
In 2015, Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 562 into law. It allows district attorneys with valid permits to carry concealed weapons in courtrooms and gun owners to bring their guns on school property as long as they leave it in a locked vehicle.
On Feb. 10, state lawmakers introduced House Bill 69, which would allow people to carry a gun without a concealed-carry permit. The current permit process requires a gun safety course.
North Carolina law also allows children to use firearms with adult supervision and the permission of a parent or guardian. Though there are federal laws restricting the age to purchase firearms, children can legally receive them as gifts or inherit them.
U.S. Representative for North Carolina’s 4th congressional district David Price said much of gun regulation activism comes from North Carolina’s cities. He said such efforts are important, but they aren’t always taken as seriously in the legislature if they come from cities known for liberal causes such as Chapel Hill.
“We will not regain if progressive discussions are only happening in cities,” he said.
Price noted the difficulty of trying to pass new gun regulations in an often gridlocked legislature.
“To some extent, you’re wasting your time,” he said.
N.C. Rep. Larry Yarborough lives in Roxboro, a town with a population of about 8,000 and an hour’s drive north of Chapel Hill where he says most people own guns and have plenty of open space for recreational use. Target shooting and hunting are favored pastimes. Some people own them for protection, too.
“Out in the country, police response times are longer so people do fend for themselves a little more,” Yarborough said. “The crime rate is very low, and I believe that part of that is the culture of self-independence and self-protection.”
Tanner Gilliam, a sales associate at Liberty Guns in Hillsborough, said people don’t buy hunting rifles as much as they used to. Though the longer guns hang on the store’s walls, most people buy handguns for target shooting and self-defense, either to keep in their home or carry with them. His black Liberty Guns T-shirt has the Second Amendment printed on the left sleeve.
Anyone buying a gun from a store in North Carolina must get a purchase permit from the local county sheriff’s office, which includes a background check, fingerprints and a test to display “good moral character.” The store also runs the FBI background check required by state law, which Gilliam said can take anywhere from five minutes to a few days. Buyers aren’t required to give their Social Security number, but Gilliam said the system works.
“We’ve never sold a gun to a felon,” he said.
Most Southern states don’t regulate private gun sales — among friends and neighbors, or over Facebook pages. The Second Amendment has been interpreted to mean that the government cannot keep track of gun ownership because it would make confiscation easier. North Carolina requires a permit to purchase handguns and pistols filed at the local sheriff’s office, even for private sales, but there is no way of tracking when such guns change hands.
According to a study published in the scientific journal “Injury Prevention,” nearly one in three Americans owns a gun.
The study found cultural and social norms influenced gun ownership rates. People who reported the prevalence of a “social gun culture” in their community were 2.25 times more likely to own a gun.
To assess “social gun culture,” researchers asked questions: Do social events with friends or family involve guns? Would an individual’s social circle or family think less of them if they didn’t own a gun?
Carman has spoken to various audiences in places, including Chapel Hill and Newtown, Connecticut, the site of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, on the importance of gun safety training and purchasing regulations.
“The issue is, you don’t know how to talk to a guy like me. And the president and his folks don’t know how to talk to a guy like me. Because you don’t understand guns if you don’t own one,” he said.
Presbyterian pastor James Atwood has spent 36 years advocating against easy access to firearms since the death of his friend. Though an avid hunter, Atwood warns against the evangelical South’s worship of guns at speaking engagements and in his 2009 book, “America and its Guns: A Theological Expose.”
Atwood said he grew up in the 1940s and ’50s on a steady diet of cowboy heroes — Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger.
“I internalized two messages: good guys always win, and good guys win with violence,” he said.
Atwood said it can be dangerous when people he calls “gundamentalists” treat their guns like idols, revering them for the sense of safety they provide.
In Carman’s town, there’s a tree behind a drugstore where some local men hang out — some who’ve been in prison and take pride in it, some struggling with addiction, some actively committing crimes. Sometimes he brings food there, in a bucket in the back of his pickup truck, and starts a conversation.
His son tells him to keep himself safe.
“He’ll say, ‘I hope you took your gun down there,’” Carman said.
But he says he walks without fear.
“It’s called loving your fellow man,” he said. “I picked a rock, and I’m standing on it. If the river gets high, I’m gonna wait it out.”