Back to school essentials have always been a familiar list of pens, pencils, fresh notebooks, new sneakers and a calculator, but a changes in the state law might be adding one more thing to that list: a gun and carry permit.

Waynesville leaders are looking for a way to keep guns out of town parks and recreation centers despite changes in the state’s conceal carry law that allow guns in more places than before.

A new state law stipulating where concealed weapons can and can’t be carried seem to leave a gray area when it comes to town parks. The town of Waynesville has always banned concealed weapons at town parks and would like to keep doing so but likewise doesn’t want to go against the new state law.

The law passed last year prevents concealed guns from being carried in recreational and athletic facilities and schools. And, under the law, weapons are legally allowed in some formerly prohibited places such as bars and state parks. While the state tried to be specific where guns are banned, however, the verbiage is ambiguous in some respects.

“There are a lot of questions in our mind, ‘what is an athletic facility? Is a dog park an athletic facility?’” said Town Manager Lee Galloway during a meeting with town leaders earlier this month.

The town’s recreation center on Vance Street and the nearby baseball and soccer fields could be classified as athletic facilities and still ban weapons. The dog park, which is completely surrounded by athletic facilities, would also remain gun free.

Prior to the state law change, Waynesville already had an ordinance in place that prevented people from carrying concealed weapons in town parks.

Several North Carolina communities, including Blowing Rock and Hickory, have begun to question the legislature’s decision, he said. Some town boards have decided not to loosen their ordinances to fall in line with the state.

“It has pretty well been concluded that this will end up in court at some point,” Galloway said.

Mayor Gavin Brown asked the town attorney to draft an ordinance even though a likely court battle over the legislation would leave a final outcome up in the air. And, if the town passes the new ordinance before the matter is resolved, the board can simply adjust it as needed.

“We can change the ordinance” if necessary, Brown said.

Despite any arguments over gun rights, the fact remains that neither Waynesville nor any town in North Carolina has had a problem with permitted gun-toting individuals. Those with permits generally obey the law with respects to their weapons and only use it for protection.

Police Chief Bill Hollingsed said he could not find incidents involving a permitted carrier using a gun at a sporting event or in a park.

“I can’t say that we have a big problem with this; we can’t find any city in the state that has a problem with this,” Hollingsed said.

The people that the town and police need to be concerned about are those who do not have permits but carry a weapon anyway, the town board agreed. The law will not prevent that individual from committing a crime.

“You worry about the people who are going to carry a concealed weapon no matter what the law is,” Hollingsed said.

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is getting the word out: from now on, he’ll be carrying a gun when meeting with constituents.

Just a short time ago such an announcement from a member of Congress probably would have been considered outrageous, headline provoking, over-the-top political rhetoric.

But not so much now, in the wake of the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Arizona, and the shooting deaths of six people standing nearby and the wounding of 11 others. Giffords was holding what has been described as a routine meeting with residents in her district when the massacre occurred.

“This weekend’s tragedy has touched many of us in a very personal way,” Shuler said. “With our thoughts on this tragedy, many of us are working with local law enforcement and the capitol police to coordinate safety measure for ourselves and our staff.”

Shuler worked closely with Giffords. He is co-chairman of the conservative Blue Dog caucus that Giffords, a former Republican, also belonged to. The two worked closely together on various pieces of legislation.

“I, like many of my constituents and staff in Western North Carolina, strongly support the Second Amendment and do exercise our right to legally and safely carry a firearm,” Shuler said. “In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to work closely with federal, state and local law enforcement to ensure that our political process is not deterred by the violent acts of a few.”

The shootings, in the words of one local politician, “give pause” to those who currently hold or might seek public office in the future — the price one pays for serving could be very high, maybe too high, given the level of angry rhetoric many believe helped fuel the attack in Arizona.

“As far as this tragic event preventing good citizens from seeking public office, I believe that if the political environment does not improve it will give pause to anyone willing to get in involved on all political levels, which is very unfortunate,” said Ronnie Beale, a veteran county commissioner in Macon County. “I also think this event speaks to the importance of maintaining and improving mental health services on all levels.”

The alleged shooter in the massacre had been expelled from a local community college for exhibiting bizarre behavior. His ramblings on the Internet also seemed incoherent, though a thread of seemingly extreme right-wing beliefs could be discerned.

Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University and an expert on North Carolina politics, said it’s obvious the nation’s political discourse has grown more virulent in the past few decades.

“There are scores of studies to show that incivility is on the rise in Congress and in our political debate in general,” Cooper said. “Although it’s not ‘the media’s fault,’ name-calling and negative attacks are certainly more newsworthy, and thus more covered than stories about politicians who play nicely.

“The problem, therefore, is not just that there’s more negative, toxic rhetoric, but that we’re more aware of it than we’ve ever been. Did this cause the shooting? Of course not,” said Cooper. “Sarah Palin’s crosshairs ad is no more responsible for this shooting than Marilyn Manson was for the Columbine shooting. It does, however, create an environment that doesn’t suppress this kind of thing.”

Bob Scott, a former news reporter who now serves as an alderman in Franklin, said he believes the antigovernment movement in the U.S. is a contributing cause in the Arizona shooting.

“I am concerned that Congress will do one of its knee-jerk reactions and pass bills to provide security for congressmen and senators at a huge cost to the taxpayer,” Scott said. “But if you think about it, most of the attacks on politicians are at the local level such as town halls and school board meetings. Politicians at the federal level are so insulated by staffers that it would be pretty hard to get near them. It is much easier to get to a local politician who has no staffers and is not surrounded by lobbyists.”

Scott, a Democrat, also raised another issue likely to dominate coverage of the shootings: the right to bear arms.

“I believe in gun ownership for target shooting and hunting,” Scott said. “But you don’t need an AK-47 or a Glock 9 mm with a 31-round magazine to go hunting. Those type weapons that the National Rifle Association wants everyone to be able to own, apparently also including those who are unstable, are designed to kill human beings. Not wild game.”

Chances are, the identity of your garbage truck driver doesn’t always cross your mind. You probably give him a friendly smile if you happen to meet over the remnants of last night’s macaroni, but the odds on knowing his life story — or even his name — are pretty slim. He’s the guy who packs off your trash and carts your recycling away. But you may not know that, depending on where you live, he may also be packing heat.

That issue came up recently at a Canton town board meeting, where it came to light that town employees may, in fact, be carrying concealed weapons. Or not. Actually, no one’s quite sure.

“We had a written policy about the use of town vehicles,” said Town Manager Al Matthews. “In that policy, we said no alcohol, no illegal substances and no unlicensed weapons.” But in a routine update of the policy at a town board meeting, someone noticed a loophole. So unlicensed weapons are definitely out; but what about licensed ones?

The answer seemed to be an implicit “yes.” The town never said no, so if any of the 3,000-plus Haywood County residents with a concealed carry permit is in their employ, there’s a chance.

This verdict did not sit well with Alderman Eric Dills.

“If you have a concealed weapon permit, you can carry a concealed weapon with you to work for the town,” he said, voicing his considerable displeasure with the situation. “You can’t go down to Blue Ridge Paper and punch in with a pistol. It’s just a safety issue. It needs to stop. It needs to end.”

Matthews said he doesn’t know how many employees carry concealed weapons on the job, noting sagely that it would be hard to know as they are, in fact, concealed. But, he said, it’s never yet been a problem.

“There have been no issues of people carrying or possessing or any complaints regarding that,” he said.

Matthews and Assistant Town Manager Jason Burrell said that they’re gathering information for the next board meeting, putting out feelers to other towns to see what their policies are.

“We don’t want to be a trailblazer with this,” Matthews said.

They just want to set their rule by the bar others use, protect themselves against tragedy and liability. “It’s a very litigious society,” Matthews said.

If they’re looking for a standard in Western North Carolina, however, they’ll be a long time searching. A Smoky Mountain News check of other local governments found their policies range from long-held prohibitions to non-stances.

Waynesville prohibits it outright. If you’re on any piece of property that is owned, leased or controlled by the town, carrying your firearm – licensed or not – is illegal, regardless of whether you’re an employee.

“It wouldn’t make any difference if they had concealed carry permits or not,” said Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway. “It would still be prohibited on property owned, leased or possessed by the town. The two exceptions, he mentions, are law enforcement officers and the houses owned by the town that employees live in as part of their compensation.

Haywood County feels the same. Assistant County Manager Marty Stamey said they’ve long had in their policies prohibitions on packing.

“No one can carry a concealed handgun on property owned or operated by the county,” said Stamey.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, Sylva has no mention of weapons in its personnel policy, according to Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower, who said she also isn’t sure about how many of their employees are licensed to carry in the first place. It’s just never come up.

Bryson City Town Manager Larry Callicutt says that city’s position is roughly the same. They’ve got 33 employees, including their five aldermen, and the only restriction they’ve got is a ban on concealed weapons in town buildings. But any of those employees could easily be in town vehicles or on town duty with their concealed firearms. They’ve never been told not to.

Callicut also says he has no idea as to how many of his employees have permits, but his guess is at least a few.

“I’ve got one,” he says, with the caveat that he doesn’t bring it into the building.

According to Jennifer Canada with the North Carolina Attorney General’s office, local governments have long had the right to clamp down on whether their employees can bring weapons to work.

Under North Carolina General Statute 14-409.40, local governments can forbid their employees to carry firearms anywhere on any of their property or whenever they’re on town business. Many cities, towns and counties passed such ordinances soon after the measure was adopted in 1995 to protect their employees and citizens from danger and themselves from litigation, she said.

And, as Canton’s Matthews pointed out, in today’s world, it’s a necessary precaution.

Second Amendment scholar and expert Robert Cottrol, a professor at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., said that even though the town might not be held liable in theory, the issue really hasn’t been tested in the high court.

“I think that’s a difficult question,” said Cottrol. “But if you follow what is the course in other areas — for example, if you are an employee and you’re driving a company vehicle and you get into an accident, obviously the company might be sued.”

Could that line of reasoning also apply to local governments in cases of firearm harm or misuse, even if the person isn’t given the weapon by the government or told they should use it? According to Cottrol, the answer is maybe.  

“The person is not necessarily carrying as part of his particular duties,” said Cottrol. “But nonetheless, the employee was in a particular place with the permission to be armed.”

Even, he notes, if the permission was only by omission – never saying no could imply yes. He also notes, however, that on the other side of that argument is that local government isn’t responsible for its employees actions with their firearms any more than the state can take the blame for what’s done with guns they permit.

“The state has given you a license to carry, but the state assumes no responsibility for your actions if you carry,” said Cottrol. “But the courts haven’t addressed it … at this point, I think these are still very much open questions.”

And that is what aldermen and town officials back in Canton are concerned about, and what other cities and towns may need to address, in case an improbable accident or unthinkable tragedy one day became a reality.

 

What the law says

NCGS 14-409.40(e) A county or municipality may regulate the transport, carrying, or possession of firearms by employees of the local unit of government in the course of their employment with that local unit of government.

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