ASHEVILLE – The four men who represent Western North Carolina in Washington have long been wary of calls for new gun control measures — and there is little sign that will change much following last month's school shooting in Florida.
Two of the four, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-Lincoln, and Sen. Thom Tillis, have expressed support for steps to ban bump stocks, devices that increase the speed at which semi-automatic weapons can be fired.
Sen. Richard Burr, McHenry and Tillis also say they back a bill to prompt government agencies to do a better job of reporting people who legally cannot own firearms to a national database used to determine whether to approve a gun sale.
The three Republicans have not publicly endorsed more restrictions on guns beyond that, and to varying degrees have focused instead on improving the nation's mental health system.
WNC's fourth representative in Congress, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Transylvania, has expressed skepticism of proposed improvements to background checks and instead offered measures that would place more armed guards in schools.
"Not only would gun control run afoul of the Constitution, but the proposals I've heard would do very little to stop the risk of shootings. It's not an option from my standpoint," Meadows wrote in a March 5 newsletter to constituents.
The Citizen Times on Feb. 26 sent all four men questions about proposals being discussed to deal with gun violence and mass shootings, like arming teachers or banning so-called assault rifles. McHenry and Tillis responded. Burr and Meadows did not.
Descriptions of their positions in this story are based on those responses and comments reported in other media since Feb. 14.
Burr has received $7 million in direct or indirect support from the National Rifle Association in his career in Congress and the NRA has spent $4.4 million to help Tillis get elected, according to a study released last fall.
Those totals put Burr second and Tillis fourth among U.S. senators and representatives in the amounts of NRA backing they've received. Some of the funds went directly to their campaigns, but most went to ads attacking their opponents or to encourage gun rights supporters to vote, according to figures compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
The NRA has been less generous with McHenry and Meadows, the CRP says, spending $43,070 in support of McHenry and $4,150.
The figures reflect the extent to which the four face competitive races for reelection, said Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University.
The races for Burr's Senate seat in 2016 and for Tillis's in 2014 were among the nation's most costly at the time and both were fairly tight. McHenry and Meadows have won their re-election bids by wide margins.
Critics sometimes charge that the NRA has bought the votes of members of Congress. Cooper said reality is more complicated.
"I think the NRA would have gotten their votes (on legislation) without" the spending to help Burr and Tillis, he said.
NRA spending increased the odds the two senators would win their races, Cooper said. In general, he said, politicians who get significant backing from the NRA are more likely to prioritize issues the NRA is interested in over topics they could give their attention to.
Financial backing "doesn't change (legislators') opinions, but it can increase participation on those issues," Cooper said.
National commentators say some politicians benefit from the NRA's ability to energize supporters to vote and fear its willingness to run attack ads against candidates it opposes.
There is little daylight between positions held by the NRA and those of Burr, McHenry, Meadows and Tillis. The NRA has said it is open to the possibility of a ban or other restrictions on bump stocks, which a shooter in Las Vegas used to kill 58 people and injure hundreds in October.
The NRA also favors a bill to improve reporting to the database used for background checks in gun sales.
Expanding concealed carry
None of the four responded specifically when asked whether they support additional restrictions on semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15, the type of weapon used to kill 17 people in Florida high school on Valentine's Day.
McHenry has supported banning bump stocks. Tillis's office said he "supports the Administration's review of any modification that mimics an automatic weapon to ensure it is consistent with federal law on fully automatic weapons. Modifications inconsistent with federal law should be banned."
Neither staked out a position on arming teachers. The statement from Tillis's office said he "believes every state should re-evaluate school safety protocols to ensure our children and teachers are safe, and he is willing to hear out any proposal that may help on the federal level."
Burr, McHenry and Tillis have voiced support for a measure to improve reporting to the database used for background checks for prospective gun buyers and McHenry and Meadows voted for it when it passed the House in December.
The House vote was controversial, however, because the bill called "Fix NICS" after the database's acronym was coupled with legislation to make it easier for people who have a permit to carry a concealed weapon in one state to also carry concealed in another.
Opponents said it would circumvent states' reasonable restrictions on concealed carry because people from states with few or no restrictions could hide a gun on their person with impunity in states that have tougher laws.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., called the bill an attempt to undermine states’ rights, “hamstring law enforcement and allow dangerous criminals to walk around with hidden guns anywhere and at any time. It’s unspeakable that this is Congress’ response to the worst gun tragedies in American history.”
Backers said concealed carry permits should have the same legal weight as driver's licenses — if they are valid in one state, they should be valid in all or nearly all, they argued.
Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, said the bill "helps ensure an American's right to carry is not infringed when crossing state lines, enhancing public safety. ... We need an armed citizenry to protect ourselves and each other."
Background checks and mental health
Burr and Tillis are among 55 co-sponsors of a stand-alone Fix NICS bill in the Senate. But the fate of the bill that passed the House is uncertain because of the addition of the concealed carry provisions. Some Republican senators say Fix NICS should be considered separately and it is unclear whether there are enough votes to pass the House bill in the Senate in its current form.
Advocates of more restrictions on guns favor a Fix NICS bill. But, they also say the database is less effective than it could be in screening out people who should not have guns because of congressional actions in recent years, mostly pushed by Republicans, to restrict the information government agencies send to it.
In February 2017, the House and Senate voted to overturn an Obama administration rule under which people who were deemed mentally incompetent to manage their Social Security payments were to be entered into the database.
Critics of the rule said it did not include adequate measures to allow people to challenge their designation. Supporters said some of those it applied to have serious mental illnesses that mean they should not have firearms.
Burr, McHenry, Meadows and Tillis all voted in favor of overturning the rule and President Donald Trump signed the bill doing that into law.
A similar debate happened in the Senate in July 2016. A proposal to add people on the federal "no-fly" list of suspected terrorists to the NICS database failed after critics said people wrongly on the list banning them from commercial flights would not have enough of an opportunity to have their names removed.
Burr and Tillis voted against the proposal. They did, however, back one that would put the onus on the government to show probable cause that someone on the list should not be allowed to buy a gun. Backers of a tougher proposal said that bar would be too high.
Meadows has voiced concern about the Fix NICS bill, wondering whether people in the database truly have problems that should bar them from having a gun. But, he has also said technology for the background checks should be improved so they can be done almost instantaneously.
Gun control advocates say the background check requirement should be expanded to cover many or all sales between private individuals who are not licensed gun dealers. Opponents of the idea say the step is unnecessary and could make it harder to transfer a firearm to a friend of family member. Burr and Tillis have voted against proposals to have the screening system cover more sales.
Meadows on Tuesday introduced bills to add $1.5 billion to the federal budget to pay for school resource officers, law enforcement officers stationed at schools, and to encourage the use of retired veterans as security guards at schools.
He said he wants to keep schools from "becoming 'soft targets,' or areas with little to stand in the way of someone with bad intentions."
School resource officers are primarily a local government responsibility now, although the federal government has contributed some funds.
The $1.5 billion Meadows proposes would be a major increase in federal funding for the officers, but would apparently fall well short of the amount needed to provide even one officer for each of the roughly 98,000 public schools in the U.S.
Burr, McHenry, Meadows and Tillis have each mentioned mental health issues as a concern in the wake of mass shootings in recent months.
McHenry had this to say: "Our nation’s mental health system should also be addressed and improved upon, which is why I’ve supported multiple pieces of legislation that help to ensure those who might want to cause others harm receive the help they need."
The statement from Tillis's office used similar language, saying the system "needs to be improved and modernized."
It says Tillis believes that step should be part of an "all of the above approach that should include solutions to keep firearms away from those who represent a danger to society, improve coordination between law enforcement and local communities, (and) increase safety at schools and public places.
Gun control advocacy groups and their allies in Congress say they do not necessarily oppose measures to treat mental illness more effectively. However, some say Republicans' focus on it is an attempt to distract from the need for restrictions on firearms and many shootings would occur even with added or more effective mental health care.
"Less than 5 percent of homicides are committed by people with mental illness," said Becky Ceartas, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence.
"We can't just say, 'Oh it's a mental health issue,' and not look at guns," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Yes or no: Gun votes in Congress
Here are how North Carolina's two senators and the two House members who represent Western North Carolina have voted on key gun-related legislation in recent years.
Concealed carry reciprocity/Fix NICS. This bill would allow people who can legally carry a concealed weapon in one state to carry it legally in another, provided the second state allows "concealed carry." Many states already do this, but the number of states that recognize other states' concealed carry permits varies, partly as a function of how restrictive the issuing state is in granting permits.
Supporters of the bill say different laws in different states are confusing and may trap otherwise law-abiding people carrying a concealed weapon. The National Rifle Association said it would "ensure that no upstanding American would be denied an effective means of self-defense while traveling from state to state."
Opponents say the bill would override restrictions in states that have laws requiring firearms training to get a permit or say those convicted of a violent misdemeanor cannot carry. They cite research showing a correlation between implementation of laws allowing concealed carry and higher crime rates.
The measure was married to what was once a separate bill to create incentives and penalties to encourage government agencies to do a better job of reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System used to determine whether someone can buy a weapon. The background check proposal has wide support from both parties and the National Rifle Association.
Votes. The bill passed the House 231-198 in December with Reps. Patrick McHenry and Mark Meadows voting in favor. It has not yet come up for a vote in the Senate.
Mental health and gun purchases. The House and Senate voted in February 2017 to overturn a federal Social Security Administration rule adopted the previous December that required the SSA to report some people with mental disabilities to the background check system.
The rule applied to people who the SSA had determined lacked the mental capacity to manage their disability benefit payments. The Obama administration said about 75,000 people with a documented mental health issue or who have been judged in state or federal court to be mentally incompetent would be unable to buy a gun. Those turned down could appeal the determination.
Those who wanted to keep the rule said it would help keep guns out of the hands of people with serious mental illnesses. Those who favored eliminating the regulation, which included advocates for the disabled, the American Civil Liberties Union and the NRA, said many of those who would be affected pose no danger.
Votes. Passed the House 235-180, with McHenry and Meadows voting yes, to overturn the rule. Passed the Senate 57-43 with Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis voting yes. President Donald Trump then signed the bill ending the rule into law.
Terrorism watch list gun purchases. An effort to keep people who are on the government "no fly" list of terrorism suspects unable to board a commercial air flight from being able to buy a weapon died in the Senate in July 2016.
Democrats generally favored an amendment to a spending bill that would have denied such purchases. Republicans backed a different amendment that would have required a court order to stop a purchase.
Both sides said some action was needed to keep guns out of the hands of potential terrorists. Democrats said the amount of evidence the alternative amendment would require to stop a purchase would be too high, the same as that needed to arrest someone. Republicans said a court hearing early in the process is an important safeguard of gun rights and the administrative appeal process in the Democratic proposal was inadequate.
Votes. A move to allow a vote on the Democrat-backed amendment failed 47-53 with Burr and Tillis voting to prevent a vote. A move to allow a vote on the Republican-backed amendment failed 53-47 -- short of the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster -- with Burr and Tillis voting to allow a vote.
Background checks. Also in July 2016, he Senate turned aside an effort to prevent many sales of firearms between private individuals without a background check. It would have closed what is sometimes called the "gun show loophole." Sales by commercial dealers at such shows are subject to background checks, but sales from one individual to another, whether at a gun show or elsewhere, are generally not.
Backers said current law allows guns to be sold to people who should not have them, thus raising safety concerns.
Opponents said the amendment would hamper transfers between people well known to one another and would be governmental overreach.
Votes. A motion to vote on the amendment failed 44-56, with both Burr and Tillis voting no.
District of Columbia gun laws. An amendment to a spending bill was adopted in July 2014 that amendment sponsor Rep. Tom Massie, R-Kentucky, said would "prevent the District of Columbia from taking any action to prevent law-abiding citizens from possessing, using, or transporting a firearm."
Massie said that despite a Supreme Court decision striking down some D.C. gun laws, "It is still difficult for D.C. residents to exercise their God-given right to bear arms."
Opponents said Congress was overstepping its authority by intervening in a local issue and make D.C. less safe by making it, in the words of U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, "perhaps the most permissive gun jurisdiction in the country." Norton said the law would end restrictions on assault weapons, the size of ammunition magazines and carrying concealed weapons.
Votes. The amendment was adopted in the House 241-181 with Meadows and McHenry voting in favor. It was removed before Congress approved a final bill.
McHenry and Tillis on guns
Here is Rep. Patrick McHenry's statement on gun violence in response to questions from the Citizen Times:
“What happened in Parkland was a horrific, preventable tragedy. While I don’t believe further restricting the Constitutional rights of the American people is the answer, there is more Congress can do to help prevent future attacks. In December, I helped the House pass legislation that would have made necessary changes to our national background check system to help stop criminals and individuals with serious mental health issues from accessing firearms. That bill awaits action in the Senate. Our nation’s mental health system should also be addressed and improved upon, which is why I’ve supported multiple pieces of legislation that help to ensure those who might want to cause others harm receive the help they need.”
Here is a statement from the office of Sen. Thom Tillis in response to the Citizen Times:
"Senator Tillis has long supported policies that balance the need to protect the Second Amendment Rights of law-abiding citizens with commonsense measures to keep firearms from those who represent a danger to society. Senator Tillis is a co-sponsor of the Fix NICS Act, bipartisan legislation that would enhance compliance and accuracy of the background check system and help ensure firearms stay out of the hands of criminals.
"While automatic weapons are banned, bump stocks modify semiautomatic weapons to significantly increase their firing speed. For that reason, Senator Tillis supports the Administration’s review of any modification that mimics an automatic weapon to ensure it is consistent with federal law on fully automatic weapons. Modifications inconsistent with federal law should be banned.
"Senator Tillis believes every state should re-evaluate school safety protocols to ensure our children and teachers are safe, and he is willing to hear out any proposal that may help on the federal level.
"Our nation’s mental health care system needs to be improved and modernized, and it’s an issue that can receive broad bipartisan support. It’s important that it be approached in a thoughtful and compassionate way that does not stigmatize Americans facing mental health issues.
"Helping to prevent future tragedies should not focus on one narrow policy path. Instead, it should be an all the above approach that should include solutions to keep firearms away from those who represent a danger to society, improve coordination between law enforcement and local communities, increase safety at schools and public places, and improve the mental health system.
"Thom has been an avid outdoorsman and proponent of Second Amendment rights for law-abiding citizens long before he became an elected official."