When North Carolina lawmakers approved a bill expanding where concealed weapons are legally allowed, it created a dilemma for communities that had banned firearms from playgrounds.
To comply with the legislation, some municipalities have had to change their laws. While some community leaders have expressed outrage, gun rights groups say its time municipalities follow the law – and they’re watching to make sure they do. If they don’t, legal action could follow.
“The days when local government bureaucrats can ignore state law with respect to firearms are over,” said Paul Valone, founder of Grass Roots North Carolina, a gun rights group. “We want these municipalities to comply with the law. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
The fight has been brewing for years. Opponents say it’s dangerous to have guns around children, but supporters say concealed weapons help reduce crime.
The latest battle can be traced back to 2011 when the General Assembly passed a law that prohibited municipalities from banning concealed weapons in local parks.
The legislation also included a provision that let cities ban concealed weapons from “recreation facilities” – defined as “a playground, an athletic field, a swimming pool and an athletic facility.”
In the wake of the measure, some communities across the state, including Asheville in western North Carolina and the Wake County town of Morrisville, approved ordinances that aimed to do just that.
But Valone said the cities overstepped their bounds by interpreting the legal definitions as broadly as possible.
“Unfortunately what we found after that was municipalities for ideological reasons … were actually torturing the English language to include as recreation facilities entire parks with hiking trails, greenways and other areas which were clearly not the intent of the General Assembly.”
So his group and others lobbied for changes, and this year lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Senate and House approved a bill expanding where concealed handguns are legally allowed.
The legislation allows concealed-carry permit holders to take firearms into bars, restaurants and other places where alcohol is served as long as the owner doesn’t expressly forbid it. The bill also allows guns on greenways, playgrounds and other public recreation areas.
And that’s meant some communities had to go back and amend their gun laws.
In Asheville, the City Council recently approved an ordinance to allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry guns at playgrounds. So did Winston-Salem and Morrisville, where Jackie Holcombe has become the face of the gun control movement.
“Municipalities should have the right to set laws that are best for the community,” said Holcombe, the town’s mayor.
She said it was difficult for the town of 20,000 people to change the local law.
“But elected officials take an oath of office that says we’ll uphold North Carolina law. However, when your police department tells you that guns don’t belong in playgrounds … it causes you to think: ‘What in the world was the General Assembly thinking? Why did they remove my authority to do what’s best for my community?’” Holcombe said.
Her stance made her a target of gun rights advocacy groups, including the National Rifle Association. She lost her bid for re-election this month.
“The NRA made it a point to inject itself in the Morrisville mayoral race,” she said.
And she promised to keep fighting.
“I’m not done because this is a state law that needs to be changed – and I feel incredibly strongly about this. I will continue to fight it,” she said.
Valone said politicians will pay a price at the polls if they support gun control measures.
“Let’s put it this way, whether it’s local government officials or state government officials or congressmen, a politician wants you to believe the election season and the legislative season have nothing to do with one another. Our job is to make sure the two are inexorably intertwined,” Valone said.
His group recently threatened to sue the city of Raleigh for not updating signs in city parks telling visitors that firearms aren’t allowed.
The city had balked at Valone’s request, saying it would be too expensive to replace all signs in the city’s 100-plus parks, especially because the rules could change again.
Valone said they are holding the city accountable.
“The city of Raleigh never changed their signs after the 2011 law passed – despite the fact that we had notified them so. It was only after we threatened to sue them this time – the second provision of the law – that they finally amended the signs.