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Sacrosanct gun rights hotly debated in Haywood

fr gunsgunsgunsGun supporters turned out en masse this week urging Haywood County commissioners to allow concealed guns on county property, from the historic courthouse to youth sports fields.

A packed house of nearly 250 people turned out for a public hearing on the issue Monday night, with the vast majority demanding a longstanding ban against weapons on county property be lifted. They argued the ban should not apply to those with lawful conceal carry permits.

“It’s what our country was founded on: God, guns and guts,” said James Smathers. “We have got to wake up in this country and it starts with meetings like this. We have to stick together and go all the way to Washington with this.”

The ire of gun supporters rained down on commissioners for over an hour as two dozen speakers took their turn at the microphone. Some delivered passionate, eloquent speeches heralding the noble virtues of freedom and quoting passages about liberty from historical figures.

“We will all stand together or we will hang separately,” said Carolyn Underwood, who even cited verses of poetry. “Strange things are happening in this land that once was free, so brother I ask are you going to stand with me?”

Other speakers took on the distinct tone and tenor of a Sunday sermon, designed to move the masses and draw rousing applause, even standing ovations.

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“Fear the government who fears your guns,” said Alan Davis. “He who would give up liberty for safety deserves neither safety nor liberty.”

Many speakers argued that the ban should not apply to those with legal conceal carry permits. Criminals intent on doing harm won’t obey the law anyway. But meanwhile, the general public who complies with the ban will be disarmed and incapable of defending themselves.

“It would infringe on our rights as morally compassed citizens. Those who have no regard for the law will be the ones carrying guns onto county property and you will have left us law abiding citizens completely defenseless,” said Meredith Mayer.

“All the criminals will be put on notice that county property is easy picking because there will be nobody to stop them,” added Don Calhoun.

The audience was dominated by men, who outnumbered women nearly 3 to 1. Most of the speakers were men as well, and some said they feel a sense of duty to protect those around them, particularly women and children, and thus need to carry a gun in public at all times to defend society against threats.

“I don’t like to carry. It is uncomfortable. I don’t enjoy it,” said Denver Stephens. But, “I have four kids and I feel it is my obligation to protect them. We live in an evil world.”

“You can bet your nose I am going to protect my granddaughters and my wife,” said James Smathers.

Allen Davis, a pastor at Woodland Baptist Church, said he finds comfort in the fact that many in his congregation have conceal carry permits. If a shooter ever came down the aisle of his church, “They will have anywhere from eight to 20 handguns pointed at them,” he said.

Several speakers said concealed carry permit holders play a valuable role in the community, ready to spring into action to protect innocent victims.

“If you fellas were in a bind somewhere, wouldn’t you want somebody to help you out if somebody had a gun on you?” Terry Ramey asked the commissioners.

A few women raised their voice in favor of gun rights as well.

“We are law-abiding citizens. We are good people who just want to take care of ourselves and our families,” said Kathryn Trull.

Carolyn Underwood, a retired teacher, disagrees with the ban on concealed weapons in schools as well.

“As a teacher I would have liked to carry one in my purse or locker to protect the children,” Underwood said.

One of the more interesting perspectives was shared by a transgender speaker, Jess Dunlap, who is a leader with the Haywood County Libertarian Party.

“The world is already unsafe for people like me,” said Dunlap, citing higher rates of violence against the LGBT community due to bias and bigotry. “It seems unfair to force anyone to relinquish the right of self defense. I am radical in the belief of our right to bear arms anytime, anywhere, as an eligible gun owner.”

Several speakers pledged retribution at the ballot box for any commissioner that voted for a ban on concealed weapons in county buildings.

“Controlling the lives of citizens can create discontent. Your attempt at making law will be reflected in November I am sure,” said Franklin McKenzie.

Only one commissioner, Kevin Ensley, is up for re-election this November.

Bad people aren’t the only ones the public needs to protect themselves against, according to Doug Knight.

“Wildlife could attack me and I would not be able to protect myself,” Knight said. “If I am not mistaken we have had bears right down here in the middle of Main Street.”


How the hubbub started

Along with careful crafted gun rights arguments, commissioners got a generous dose of pent up anger and disdain for government rules and regulations in general. The commissioners were sitting ducks with no choice but to absorb the wrath of those who feel their basic liberties have been eroded from the courthouse to the White House.

Today’s commissioners had nothing to do with the original ban on concealed weapons on county property, but that fact was lost on most of the audience.

Instead, commissioners have found themselves in the hot seat as they attempt to modify the ban — ironically making it less restrictive than it is now.

Email comments have been flooding the inbox of county leaders leading up to the public hearing. And like those in attendance, most thought the ban was something new being proposed.

“We have a lot of people saying ‘they are trying to take away our gun rights.’ Actually we are trying to expand them,” County Manager Ira Dove said.

Concealed guns have been banned on county property and in county buildings since the mid-1990s. Most counties and cities across the state do likewise.

However, Haywood’s ordinance banning concealed weapons on county property no longer squares with state law, which was changed in 2013 by the Republican-led General Assembly.

Republican lawmakers passed a new law that over-rode local ordinances across the state. They ruled that counties and towns could no longer summarily ban conceal carry permit holders from packing heat on government property — instead the ban can only apply inside buildings and on the surrounding premises.

When it comes to county property with no building on it — such as trash drop-off sites or greenways — concealed carry permit holders can’t be banned from carrying weapons.

That forced the county to clean up its ordinance.

“What we are doing tonight is to try to make our current ordinance match state statutes,” Dove explained to the audience.

Dove said the commissioners could have cleaned up the ordinance to square with state law without holding a public hearing, and thus avoided the backlash now being directed at them. But Dove said the commissioners wanted to be open and transparent by calling a public hearing.

“It is not good public policy to try to duck an issue,” Dove said.

Most speakers didn’t realize there’s been a longstanding ordinance on the books banning concealed weapons on county property, and thought it was something new being proposed.

Those who understood that fact, however, urged commissioners not to simply square the existing ordinance with state law changes, but to throw it out altogether.

“I ask that y’all get rid of this. There are other counties that have gotten rid of it. So let’s get rid of it out of Haywood County,” said Doug Knight.


Parks and greenways

The move by state Republican lawmakers to loosen gun laws in 2013 was controversial. Sweeping changes to state statutes also made it legal for those with conceal carry permits to take guns on college campuses, into bars, and into ticketed venues like concerts or amusement parks. 

One of the most contested changes involved parks and playgrounds. Most cities and counties around the state banned weapons at parks, sports fields and playgrounds. Such bans became illegal under the new law, and cities and towns were forced to allowed conceal carry permit holders to wear their guns in parks and on greenways.

Nonetheless, Allens Creek Park remained on the list of county property where a weapon ban would apply, even in the proposed ordinance revision. This caused confusion for speakers, who questioned how the county could continue to ban weapons at the park when state law specifically prevented such bans.

“If you attempt to ban concealed carry permits in parks, we will sue you and we will win,” said Paul Valone, a representative of the gun rights group Grassroots.

N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Spruce Pine, traveled from Yancey County to attend the hearing and also spoke in favor of allowing weapons at Allens Creek Park.

One speaker asked commissioners if they would feel differently if their daughters or granddaughters got attacked and raped while jogging on a greenway.

Allens Creek Park consists of soccer fields, a walking path, a playground and picnic facilities. Under state law, a ban on concealed weapons could only apply during official athletic events on the sports fields, not to the entire park as a matter of course.

After the hearing, Dove admitted the language referring to Allens Creek Park needed to be clarified. The county intended the ban to only apply when athletic games were being held on the soccer fields, not as a matter of course. The ordinance didn’t stipulate that, however, and Dove admitted the intent should be more clear.

“It would only be those days when you have an athletic event,” Dove said.

It is not known when the commissioners will vote on the new weapons policy applying to county property. Commissioner Mark Swanger said the county will prepare a fact sheet responding to Frequently Asked Questions that came up during the hearing and present it at the next county meeting, scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday. April 4.

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