Charlotte has a gun problem. Addressing it isn’t as easy as you’d think

Charlotte has a gun problem. Addressing it isn’t as easy as you’d think
  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share by Email
  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share by Email

Before he was murdered last August, 23-year-old Sam Stitt worked 12-hour days at a call center in north Charlotte. His father, Michael, says that just about everything Sam did back then was to provide for his toddler son, Noah.

Sam was born on Christmas Eve in 1995 at CMC Main in Dilworth. He was the youngest of four kids, and his parents describe him as observant and playful. He loved numbers. Even as a young child, he could tell his mom, Sylvia, which days her paychecks were coming.

Sam joined the ROTC in high school — eventually he wanted a career in the military. A scholarship brought him to East Carolina University, but he came back to Charlotte after a year. In 2018, his high school sweetheart gave birth to Noah.

“One thing that I will always remember about Sam is the way he looked at Noah, and the way that he embraced fatherhood,” Michael says.

Michael Smith (left) stands next to his son, Sam, while holding Sam's son, Noah (courtesy of Silvia Smith)

Michael Smith (left) stands next to his son, Sam, while holding Sam’s son, Noah (courtesy of Sylvia Smith)

The day he died, Sam had taken Noah to his 18-month pediatrician’s checkup. He came back to Noah’s mother’s apartment off Ventura Way in north Charlotte for dinner. He was on the phone with his uncle outside the apartment when someone ran up to him with a gun.

Sam was trying to outrun his assailant and close the door to the building when one fatal bullet struck him. Sam had a concealed carry permit and a loaded gun on him, his parents say, but didn’t have time to draw it.

Police don’t know exactly what happened, but they say it was an attempted robbery.

Sam’s murder is one of 26 open homicides from 2019, the deadliest year in Charlotte since 1993. Of the 106 murders last year, guns were used in 88, according to data from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department.

Charlotte’s homicide count for last year was previously reported to be 107, but CMPD last month deemed one shooting in August to be self-defense, and therefore justifiable. As of February 7, there have been eight homicides in Charlotte in 2020, and five involved a gun, according to CMPD.

At this time last year, there’d been nine homicides.

Addressing the use of firearms in violent crime is a complicated and controversial issue with no clear-cut solution, officials say.

Other governments have turned to gun buyback programs to reduce the number of firearms on the streets. After the Christchurch massacre that killed 51 last year, New Zealand officials conducted a mandatory buyback and collected 56,000 weapons.

In an effort to curb gun violence in 2016, Minneapolis officials offered Visa gift cards in exchange for civilians’ firearms. They had to close down the buyback early because of the strong response: The city collected more than 150 guns, and handed out more than $25,000 in gift cards. Police took the guns apart and distributed the pieces to local artists, who turned them into an art exhibit called “Art is My Weapon.”

Charlotte hasn’t had a comprehensive gun buyback program in years. In 2017, CMPD partnered with Hyatt Gun Shop to give away 100 vehicle gun locks, which the Charlotte Observer described at the time as “simple boxes that strap around an immovable part of a car and lock up a handgun.” After the department ran out, Hyatt sold several more at a wholesale price of $23.

The gun lock program didn’t make much of a difference in the number of weapons stolen from vehicles, the department has said. Gun buybacks here haven’t curtailed homicide rates in the past, either.

To make matters more complicated, if officials in North Carolina opt to conduct a gun buyback again, they are limited in what they can do with weapons they obtain.

CMPD has a stockpile of about 12,000 guns in storage at its headquarters Uptown that police have taken off the street over the years. That number includes 2,067 collected in 2019.

State law dictates what law enforcement agencies do with the weapons they collect. Passed in 2013, the law says that law enforcement can only destroy seized weapons if they don’t have a serial number, or if they’re no longer safe because of age or wear.

Otherwise, police departments can sell the guns to federally licensed gun dealers. In turn, the revenue goes to the local public school system. Police can also maintain the guns for purposes like training.

In a recent interview, CMPD chief Kerr Putney said while that law may be well-intentioned, keeping guns in circulation comes with risks. People could obtain them — legally or otherwise — to commit crimes.

In a city like Charlotte, where violent crime was up 12 percent last year, Putney says, the risk is not worth it.

“We can’t help but know that a few hundred (guns) every year are stolen and used for bad causes,” the chief says. “I’m just not going to contribute to that.”

CMPD Chief Kerr Putney

CMPD Chief Kerr Putney (courtesy of CMPD and Discover Love Studios)

Like other police departments across the U.S., CMPD has reported a steady rise in guns stolen from cars. In 2019, that number was 691 here, more than twice that of a decade ago, when 292 guns went missing from cars in 2009.

In 2018, the number was 589. (CMPD does not track how many guns stolen from cars are used in violent crime. Officials won’t disclose anything about the weapon Sam Stitt’s killer used, as it is an ongoing case.)

Atlanta, St. Louis, Nashville, and Memphis are just a few other cities that have experienced a surge in guns stolen from cars, a recent NPR analysis showed.

Lieutenant Blaine Whited of the Nashville Police Department told NPR that young people are often the ones behind the thefts: “They understand, ‘We check enough door handles, we’re gonna get something.’ “

A 20-year-old man named Khaleid Sanders already had a handful of weapons-related violations — including assault by gunpoint — by the time CMPD arrested him last month for a series of four car break-ins in the Plaza Hills neighborhood.

Officers tied him to the break-ins using information from his electronic ankle monitoring device. That arrest came just six days after CMPD had arrested Sanders for the same crime — stealing a gun out of an unlocked car.

For Charlotte mayor pro tem Julie Eiselt, the gun violence issue is personal.

One morning in 2007, before she was on city council, Eiselt was standing next to her car in the parking lot of the Dowd YMCA when a man came up to her and tried to abduct her at gunpoint. She called out, and fortunately, he fled. Police caught him four days later when he abducted another woman.

The gun he used was a stolen one he’d bought off the street for $25.

Nothing’s really changed since then, Eiselt says. The average cost of a blackmarket gun these days is about $100.

“They’re all being stolen out of cars sitting on roads in Myers Park,” Eiselt says. “It’s just a real problem that people don’t seem to take seriously.”

Eiselt’s experience prompted her to start a grassroots organization called Neighbors for a Safer Charlotte, which works to raise funds for the police department and district attorney’s office. Her experience also ultimately led her to run for office.

“There’s so little the police department can do to keep those guns off the streets … until we can get some kind of help from the state,” Eiselt says.

North Carolina is considered a “permissive” gun law state. Open carry is legal here without a permit, and conceal carry is legal here with a permit. It is also legal to keep a gun in your car if you have a permit. The state has no restrictions on the sale of assault weapons.

Efforts to tighten gun laws at the state level fall along party lines.

Last summer, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper signed an executive order meant to strengthen background checks for gun buyers. He urged lawmakers in the Republican-controlled legislature to pass two gun-control measures.

One would have prohibited the sale of large-capacity magazines; the other was a so-called “Red Flag” bill that would have allowed family members or police to ask that authorities seize from someone who could be dangerous.

The proposals never advanced in the legislature.

Instead, some places are taking the conversation in the exact opposite direction. In the month or so since Charlotte concluded its deadliest year since 1993, several surrounding counties have been declaring themselves Second Amendment Sanctuaries. The declarations are largely symbolic and essentially say that local officials won’t enact their own gun controls. Cabarrus, Rowan, Lincoln, and Gaston all passed such measures last month.

Mecklenburg County officials say there are no plans here for such a declaration.

Part of Charlotte’s gun problem lies in the fact that the criminal justice system doesn’t have the resources it needs to prosecute people who possess guns unlawfully.

In laying out his 2020 initiatives, District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said last month that he plans to prioritize homicides and gun-related trials. Prosecutors will move up trials for defendants accused of using guns during the course of their crime, whether it’s a robbery or an assault, Merriweather’s office says.

By the end of the year, Merriweather’s office plans to take 20 homicide cases to trial. Last year, the team handled 13 homicide cases. Last year’s spike in homicides was a driving force behind that goal, Merriweather said in a recent interview with the Agenda.

Often, people who already have a felony record wind up using guns to commit violent crime, Merriweather said. Prosecuting those individuals first could prevent them from killing.

Merriweather’s office is already stretched thin, though. That’s why he is asking the state for more funding.

Milwaukee, which has about 100,000 fewer residents than Charlotte, has 110 prosecutors. Charlotte has 85.

Essentially, Merriweather’s team is busier than ever, but they’re not growing, and they’re not getting paid more.

“Our folks are doing more with less,” Merriweather said. “That’s OK for a while, but in the long term, I believe it’s unsustainable.”

Oftentimes, CMPD arrests people with long criminal histories who have had prior charges dropped for a number of reasons, a Charlotte Observer series last year showed. In 2019, there were 40 murder suspects who had prior weapons charges dismissed.

Punishing people for illegally possessing and using guns is just one answer to a complex problem. Officials like Pat Cotham say addressing the root causes of violence is crucial.

The county commissioner cites the barriers that low-income residents face — from eviction to landing good-paying jobs to finding affordable housing.

None of those issues necessarily leads directly to gun violence. But they tend to exacerbate a cycle of poverty, she says. The cycle can lead to mental health issues, substance abuse, and even homelessness.

And desperate people do desperate things.

People often turn to guns to solve problems, even if it’s a small amount of money, local law enforcement has said. CMPD is considering the December shooting death of Scott Brooks an armed robbery. Brooks was the co-owner of Brooks’ Sandwich House, a NoDa mainstay well-known for only accepting cash.

“We criminalize poverty,” Cotham said. 

“Then we give (people) a whole lot more obstacles to jump through to get them what they need. A lot of them are just trying to survive.”

A mural of Scott Brooks was painted onto his family's business, Brooks' Sandwich House, after his murder in December.

A mural of Scott Brooks was painted onto his family’s business, Brooks’ Sandwich House, after his murder in December.

Lisa Crawford is a volunteer with a Charlotte group that no one wants to be a member of — Mothers of Murdered Offspring.

She’s seen gun violence grow worse over the years, and worries about how comfortable children are these days with guns. Part of the problem, she says, is that many kids lack the emotional resiliency to deal with issues such as bullying.

“We’re not equipping our children — boys or girls — with the skills to deal with conflict, tragedy, disappointment, and embarrassment,” Crawford says.

For its part, Mecklenburg County says it now will treat violent crime like a public health crisis.

What’s that mean? Part of it will include ramping up social services in high-crime areas. According to the county, 8 percent of the city’s violent crime occurs in four areas across two square miles.

To remember their son, Sylva and Michael Smith are working to establish a nonprofit called Standing Against Murders, or SAM.

It will provide support to young fathers, a group Sylvia says is underserved, through conflict resolution, career guidance, and mentorship.

“Typically the young ladies get all of the press and attention,” Sylvia says. “Because Sam was growing into becoming an exceptional father, I think it’s important that young men be supported as well.”

The Smiths have already started outreach to connect with students at Rocky River High School, where Sam went. Supporting these young men, they say, could help them find ways to solve their problems peacefully.

Sam had that type of support already from his parents and siblings. Within a few months after he started his job at the call center last year, Sam was promoted three times, his father says. Sam had been approved for his own apartment in Ballantyne, where he had planned to move in September.

He wasn’t looking for trouble the night he was killed.

That’s why Michael says he still struggles to understand why this happened to his son. Sam was doing everything right. He was working tirelessly to provide for his son, Michael says. He didn’t use drugs. As far as Michael knew, Sam never even got into so much as a fistfight.

“Bad things happen to good people, too,” Michael says.

Sam Stitt with his son, Noah (courtesy of Silvia Smith)

Sam Stitt with his son, Noah (courtesy of Sylvia Smith)

127 Total Views 2 Views Today
Story Views:
Join the 119,450 smart Charlotteans that receive our daily newsletter.
"It's good. I promise." - Emma   Emma Way