CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Ames Alexander | The Charlotte Observer) - North Carolina has reached a grim milestone: More people died from guns in 2016 than any of the previous 35 years, new federal data shows.
In 2016, more than 1,400 people died from guns in North Carolina, according to the most recent data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The firearm death toll rose by 120 that year.
Experts are not yet sure why the numbers are rising. But a jump in firearm-related homicides appears to have driven the increase. Homicides involving guns climbed to 558 in 2016 – a 27 percent increase over the previous year.
The number of gun-related suicides remained essentially unchanged, accounting for 788 deaths in 2016.
In the wake of the shooting that killed 17 at a Florida high school last month, lawmakers in Congress and various state legislatures are considering ways to toughen gun laws. But legislators in North Carolina appear unlikely to beef up gun laws here.
Gun deaths in North Carolina have risen significantly faster than the state's population. For every 100,000 people, about 14 died from firearms in 2016. That was the highest rate since 1997.
Phil Cook, a public policy professor at Duke University who has studied guns and violent crime, said grieving families aren't the only ones affected. The rising gun carnage also increases the load on police departments, reduces property values and damages neighborhoods.
"It's a concern because … it's a public health problem," Cook said. "It's just a collection of problems we were hoping were in the rear view mirror."
The pace of gun deaths here continues to exceed the national rate, about 12 gun deaths for every 100,000 people in 2016.
Gun control advocates – including Becky Ceartas, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence – blame the state's laws. In its scorecard of state gun laws, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives North Carolina a D-.
"It's incredibly troublesome, saddening and frustrating," Ceartas says of the rising gun toll in North Carolina. "Because we know there are gun laws out there that have been proven to save lives … We do know it's a public health crisis and it needs to be handled as one."
The number of gun deaths nationally has risen, too. Across the United States, there were more than 38,000 gun deaths in 2016 – an average of about 106 each day. The number rose about 7 percent over the previous year.
Charlotte has not been immune to the trends. The number of firearm-related homicides in the city has jumped sharply, from 36 in 2014 to 66 last year, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
What's driving violence?
Though experts say they're unsure what's behind the increase, they point to a number of possible causes.
Some say the opioid epidemic has helped spur more illegal drug trafficking, which in turn has spawned more drug violence.
Among the many homicides that police have attributed to drugs: 37-year-old Cornelius Drayton was fatally shot at a Charlotte gas station last June after people in two cars met for a drug deal.
Others believe there are simply more people toting guns these days.
As more people carry guns, "there inevitably will be a rise in the number of people who use that gun in some sort of altercation," said Mike Turner, chair of UNC Charlotte's criminology department.
From 2015 to 2016, the number of concealed carry permits issued in North Carolina climbed from about 68,000 to about 107,000, according to the State Bureau of Investigation. Last year, about 74,000 permits were issued.
It's unclear how many gun-related homicides in North Carolina were committed by lawful gun owners. But one 2016 study conducted in Pittsburgh found that eight of 10 gun criminals were carrying guns that didn't belong to them.
Darrel Stephens, who served as chief of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department from 1999 to 2008, said chiefs of major police departments have tagged social media as a contributor, pointing to homicides that were triggered by taunts and insults on Facebook.
"Young people sometimes lash out in anger over perceived slights and insults," said Stephens, who also previously led the Major Cities Chiefs Association. "You have easy access to guns and that results in violent encounters. … Social media changes the game a little bit."
Consider the death of Prentis Robinson. On Feb. 25, Robinson was on Facebook Live when he was shot to death in Wingate. Neighbors told WCNC that Robinson often used social media to publicize neighborhood disputes, and some believe that's what got him killed.
During investigations into several recent murders, CMPD officers learned that the antagonists confronted each other on social media before violence broke out, according to Capt. Chris Dozier.
"By the time it gets to the point where they meet in person, it escalates pretty quickly to gun violence," said Dozier, who oversees the department's violent crimes division.
Nationally, there may be signs of hope. The number of murders declined in most of the largest U.S. cities last year, according to data compiled by the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
But in North Carolina's two largest cities – Charlotte and Raleigh –murders climbed.
"It's a huge concern," Stephens said. "And it should be a concern to everyone … Collectively, people want to live in a safe environment. And they want to be free of violence."