NC’s Sen. Tillis on gun legislation: ‘It is going to help communities be safer’

·8 min read
David T. Foster III/

In the past 24 hours, North Carolina’s senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, have been called Republican in name only, carpetbaggers and turncoats.

The pair drew the ire of Second Amendment supporters Tuesday night after senators filed a bill, that Tillis helped draft, aimed at expanding access to mental health care and creating stricter gun laws.

The bill came in direct response to a mass shooting last month at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead.

Tillis said in a news conference Wednesday he doesn’t know if the new provisions in this bill would have prevented the shooting from happening, but he believes it’s a step in the right direction.

“It won’t stop every horrible event like we’ve seen at far too many schools and far too many public places,” Tillis said, “but I am convinced that it is going to help communities be safer and that it is going to help people who may need help, who have mental health challenges, to get the help that they need to avert the crisis far before it escalates to the level it did in Uvalde.”

That day, Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, vowed to make changes to the country’s gun laws in hopes of preventing future school shootings. To make that happen, Murphy began working with Tillis and Sen. John Cornyn, of Texas, both Republicans; and Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona.

Tuesday night, the four senators, with the support of a bipartisan group of 20 of their colleagues, including Burr, introduced the bill and with the help of 14 Republicans voted to advance it to a floor debate.

“Sen Thom Tillis hates you and hates the Constitution,” the Twitter comments began shortly after.

“Tillis you lost our votes,” another read.

Gun violence

Cornyn spoke about the bill on the Senate floor Tuesday night.

“This was an attack that was so cruel, so brutal and inhumane that it has brought much of our nation to its knees in mourning,” Cornyn said. “Since the shooting, my office has received, as I’m sure many other members of Congress have, I received tens of thousands of calls and letters and emails with a singular message: ‘Do something.’ Not, ‘Do nothing,’ but ‘Do something.’”

As of Sunday, the United States has experienced 320 mass shootings in 2022. Mass shootings are considered a single incident where four or more people die.

Quinnipiac University found in a poll released June 8 that 57% of Americans support stricter gun laws, 92% support requiring background checks for all gun purchases and 52% believe that the country would be less safe if more people carried guns.

Becky Ceartas, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, said in a news release that the state experienced its most violent year this century in 2020, with 1,699 gun-related deaths. An average of four people per day died in North Carolina that year, Ceartas said.

“We are grateful for Senator Thom Tillis’ work to include almost everything from the bipartisan framework in the final gun violence prevention bill,” Ceartas said. “We are pleased that both of our senators realize that North Carolina desperately needs protection from gun violence.”

Support and confusion

In addition to the Twitter critics, there also were tweets offering hugs, congratulations and appreciation for prioritizing public safety.

Tillis addressed both the support and the opposition during his news conference.

“We’re getting a number of calls that are very supportive of it,” Tillis said. “We’re getting calls that are opposed to it, but when you dig down into what specifically you’re opposed to, it seems like some of these calls are motivated by groups that either have not had an opportunity to read the bill, or think that for some reason, this is step one to something that they would find objectionable in subsequent legislation.”

Adam Webb, spokesman for Tillis, also addressed the opposition with McClatchy Tuesday and said Tillis’ team knew this bill would be controversial and the reaction would be mixed.

He said it is always hard to gauge where true feelings lie because the most passionate people on an issue are the most vocal and in this case, the base if concerned about the bill.

“The more chances we get to explain it the more people seem to understand it,” Webb said.

Webb pointed to a statement Cornyn made on the Senate floor Tuesday night.

“We know this is an issue that divides much of the country, depending on where you live, and maybe even divides people living in the same household, but I think we have found some areas where there’s space for compromise and we’ve also found that there are some red lines and no middle ground,” Cornyn said.

The bill

Tillis encouraged his constituents to read the 80-page bill to find out for themselves what it actually says. He said he spent time before the news conference to read it again himself and find out how long it would take: 45 minutes.

Tillis said the bill includes strong language to ensure due process in states that enact red flag laws, which allow family, friends and law enforcement to petition a judge to take weapons away from a person believed to be a danger to themselves or others. The bill does not create a federal red flag law but does encourage individual states to adopt one and provides funding as an incentive to do so.

Much of the bill focuses on expanding mental health care access based on a pilot program that has been credited with dramatic reductions in emergency room admissions for behavioral health.

The second part of the bill focuses on school safety, providing schools with resources and increasing law enforcement training to better prepare officers who respond to school shootings. The law enforcement response in the Uvalde elementary school shooting has been widely criticized as more details have been uncovered about the lack of response.

The third provision ensures that businesses making, building and selling weapons do background checks on their buyers. Tillis said that is already federal law, though hobbyists and gun show sellers have been able to get around that.

“We’re just stepping that up and making it very clear what businesses are expected to be licensees and perform background checks,” Tillis said.

That last piece of the law involves enhanced background checks on those under 21.

The bill does not include a mandatory waiting period, does not restrict any current legal weapons and does not restrict 18- to 21-year-olds from buying assault-style rifles, something Tillis said was never on the table.

Tillis would not say what he wanted from negotiations that didn’t make it in the bill but said he is a supporter of the Second Amendment and owns a handgun.

Opposition baffles Tillis

Tillis said he doesn’t understand opposition to the bill once someone has read it.

“It is a bill that’s going to take our response to behavioral health and mental health, which is a crisis in this country, to a level that has probably never been to before...” Tillis said. “I think this is probably the most impactful part of this bill, and then when you get into hardening schools and better training for school resource officers, I can’t imagine why anybody would be opposed to that.”

Tillis said he also can’t understand why anyone would oppose banning straw purchases of guns that have led to active shooters and mass violence. He said when it comes to red flag laws, if someone were to read the legislation, the outcomes without the law and the steps for due process typically takes a conversation from concern to understanding and support.

“I feel strongly that the vast majority of those who own guns in this country are law abiding, responsible gun owners, Tillis said. “That’s where you always run into difficulty because its not about somebody like me who also has a handgun or so many people who owned it for a lifetime without incident. That’s the majority of people who own guns in this country.”

Tillis said he is working to assure Second Amendment rights for law abiding citizens but said they also need to acknowledge, and are doing so with this bill, that guns can get into the hands of the wrong people at the wrong time.

Next steps

Senators are expected to approve the bill by week’s end, before starting a two-week recess.

The House will then receive the bill and take action on it.

Tillis said it’s hard for him to predict what House Republicans will do with the bill because they’re very divided on the issue but a vote Tuesday where House members passed gun legislation of their own — which is expected to die in the Senate — leaves him hopeful.

However, two of Tillis’ colleagues from the North Carolina delegation in the House have already taken to Twitter to attack the bill.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who has had a longstanding rivalry with Tillis and who recently lost his bid for reelection, tweeted: “Consistently, over the last few decades, the Republican voter has been betrayed by Republicans in office on the issue of gun control.”

Rep. Dan Bishop has tweeted and retweeted many posts in opposition of the bill. One read: “Why is it courage to betray your voters?”

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