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2nd Amendment Sanctuary Push Hits Home In Haywood County

Cory Vaillancourt
Haywood County commissioners prepare for a Jan. 21 meeting at the Historic Haywood County Courthouse

On Monday, thousands of peaceful demonstrators converged on the Virginia state capitol in protest of proposed restrictions on gun sales.   A day later, the push for so-called “Second Amendment sanctuaries” picked up again in neighboring North Carolina.  That included the home county of the late Riley Howell, the hero of last year’s shooting at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The Historic Haywood County Courthouse was standing room only Tuesday night as dozens of speakers spent more than two hours addressing county commissioners on one of the nation’s most divisive and emotional topics.

“The Haywood County Commission now knows there is significant interest in the issue of making Haywood County a Second Amendment sanctuary,” said Paul Yeager, one of the speakers who also helped organize the action by distributing and collecting petitions, and creating a Facebook group that grew to more than 3,000 members in just 10 days. “It grew amazingly quickly.”

Over the past year or so, more than 100 Virginia cities and counties have passed Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions in response to gun control measures that were pending in the Virginia General Assembly.

The sanctuary movement has now spread to North Carolina, even though there are no serious gun control measures being proposed here. A number of North Carolina counties have either debated or passed resolutions in the last two weeks.

The resolutions state that local governments won’t enforce laws that restrict gun rights. Although the resolutions and are purely symbolic, some Virginia sheriffs have even vowed not to enforce any laws they feel are unconstitutional.

Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher, the first speaker at the commission meeting, said he’s a strong Second Amendment supporter and bound by oath to enforce the law.

“I support our citizens’ protected right to bear arms under the Second Amendment and the doctrine of judicial review that grants to the United States Supreme Court and the lower courts the power to determine the constitutionality of any law, and sheriffs do not possess the legal authority to interpret the constitutionality of any law,” said Christopher.

Like other sheriffs, Christopher’s main responsibility is public safety, and he took a hard stance against gun crimes.  “That includes continuing to focus on methods of early identification of potentially violent traits, along with early intervention and support when these behaviors are observed,” he said. “This also includes that prevent or reduce the access of legally prohibited persons to firearms and vigorous enforcement of our existing laws.”

Christopher was followed by members of the audience who were largely in support of a sanctuary resolution, but the debate took an emotional turn when an unexpected speaker stepped to the podium.

“I’m Natalie Henry Howell, I’m a native of Haywood County. Thank you for letting me speak tonight. This is not going to be easy for me. My family has been a victim of gun violence. My son Riley was killed by a school shooter at UNC Charlotte on April 30 of this past year.”

Howell’s retelling of her son’s actions that day prompted sobs and even tears from some.

“I know that Riley’s shooter had a 9-millimeter gun and had several extended magazines,” she said. “I know that my son was killed by bullets that came from an extended magazine. He was the last one shot and once Riley tackled that gunman no one else was shot that day. He was shot by bullets 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 – he was shot eight times that day.”

In addition to an extended magazine ban, Howell also called for tighter background checks.

“I’m not real sure I understand why someone who says they want responsible gun ownership wouldn’t be for background checks that are thorough,” Howell said. “The shooter who killed my son should have never owned a gun.”

Yeager, and others like him, remain steadfast in their request for a sanctuary resolution.

“I think that was probably very hard for Riley’s mom to get up and do, and surely Riley’s death was a tragedy,” he said. “However, we’re not going to prevent tragedies like that by disarming law abiding people.”

While all five commissioners expressed support for the Second Amendment, it remains to be seen what might come of the Second Amendment Sanctuary debate in Haywood County.

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