Raleigh, N.C. — As part of ongoing effort to get Congress to pass "common-sense gun laws," supporters of Mayors Against Illegal Guns rallied in downtown Raleigh's Moore Square Saturday to call for lawmakers to strengthen the country's background check system.
The group, a coalition of more than 900 mayors from across the country, is conducting a 100-day bus tour that began following a June 14 ceremony that marked the six-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Neil Heslin, whose son Jesse Lewis was one of 20 first graders slain in the Dec. 14, 2012 rampage at Sandy Hook, was part of the group that addressed the crowd Saturday morning. Heslin said he owes it to his son to try and convince lawmakers to expand current background check systems.
"The three things that are the most important are the background checks...the mental health...and better school security," Heslin said. "If we had better school security in place and a better background check system in place, they could have identified Adam Lanza as a risk to himself or others. It could have prevented it."
Gun rights advocates with Grass Roots NC were also at Moore Square Saturday morning in response to the bus tour, holding signs and telling the assembled crowd that guns save lives.
Paul Valone said he came to the rally to defend his rights under the Bill of Rights and the Second Amendment.
"These people are trying to control us. We simply do not wish to be controlled," he said. "We are looking to expand our concealed weapons laws into other areas to allow people to better protect themselves."
Joslin Simms, whose son Rayburn was murdered in Durham in 2005, said the rally wasn't designed to tell people they can't own guns.
"Everybody has a right to protect themselves," she said. "We are here asking for background checks for these guns at gun shows and private gun sales. Even with the background checks, it's not going to stop all the murders. But it will help a lot."
Valone said that expanding background checks won't necessarily prevent violent crime, including mass shootings like the one in Newtown.
"The law was followed and background check was completed," he said of the weapons used by Lanza at Sandy Hook. "If anything, it demonstrates more clearly that if somebody wants to obtain a firearm illegally they are going to do that and no measure of gun control is going to do that."
Simms addressed the Grass Roots NC supporters from the podium, telling them her son had the same right to live as they do to own a gun.
"Y'all can stand over there and say, 'guns save lives,' but they also take away lives. Innocent lives," she said. "We need to think about that just as much."
Heslin said the two sides have to compromise before lawmakers will be able to pass any legislation with true impact.
"It's not about taking somebody's rights or infringing on the Second Amendment," he said. "Let's better and expand the system that is already in place."
Heslin and Simms were joined at the podium by Democratic U.S. Rep. David Price, who said an expanded background check system could help prevent some of the gun violence that cities deal with daily.
"As incomprehensible as mass shootings are, the scourge of gun violence is not confined to these horrific headline-generating massacres," Price said. "It is an everyday reality in our cities and towns and neighborhoods."
Price also criticized North Carolina lawmakers for introducing legislation that "weakens existing restrictions."
House Bill 937, which was rewritten and passed by the North Carolina Senate on June 13, strengthens some penalties for those who commit crimes using a gun. Despite that, it also eliminates pistol permits and expands where those who have concealed carry permits may take their guns.
Permit holders would be able to carry firearms in businesses that serve alcohol although they would not be allowed to drink, in funeral processions, on playgrounds, and at sporting events. After Senate approval, the bill was sent to House Rules Committee.
"Statewide polls have shown that as many as 90 percent of North Carolinians agree we should keep guns out of the hands of criminals by requiring people purchasing guns pass a criminal background check first," he said. "Some in Congress haven't gotten your message, or are ignoring you. Congress must pass this common-sense reform to make our communities safer."