As a senior at West Henderson High, Chuck Edwards seemed on track for a career in forestry. In 1977 he won the North Carolina Future Farmers of America Forestry Award – the FFA Forestry Championship.
Outside of West Henderson High he worked behind the counter at a local McDonald’s. The 16-year-old so impressed his bosses that they pushed him toward management, a boost that led to his financial success as owner of six McDonald’s.
But it’s not the hamburger business that excites Edwards now. It’s something that started as a hobby and evolved into a major focus of his legislative work over six years in the North Carolina Senate and now as the first-term Republican representative from Western North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District.
Selling guns. Not just for his own profit, but for the financial health of the firearms industry.
Based on his legislative agenda, Edwards is on a mission to keep the federal government from interfering in those sales, even if they include firearms suited for war or mass slaughter, either by the manufacturer or by the owner using inexpensive, off-the-shelf modifications.
In the first months of his two-year term, Edwards has joined with some of Congress’ most far-right members to co-sponsor several proposed federal laws that would make it easier for nearly anyone age 18 or over to buy every manner of firearm, and to restrict or prohibit the government from intervening. Collectively, these measures would effectively gut every current federal restriction on firearms.
Even the 90-year-old National Firearms Act, intended to deprive Depression-era gangsters of their sawed-off shotguns and “Tommy guns,” could be erased or rendered moot with Edwards’ support for a bill that would strip the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – the ATF — of its enforcement powers.
A bipartisan law enacted last year expanding background checks into gun buyers and supporting state “red-flag laws” would lose most of its funding. The law enables the ATF to block gun sales to people under the age of 21 who have juvenile-crime records. And it prohibits sales to people with some mental health issues, or who have histories of violent or threatening behavior, so-called red flags.
Much of this won’t come as a surprise to voters in Edwards’ district. As a state senator, Edwards earned a 100 percent score from the pro-gun Grassroots North Carolina lobby, and a string of near-perfect A grades from the National Rifle Association’s political arm.
In one 2022 campaign debate against his Democratic opponent, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Edwards heatedly brushed aside her proposal for “common sense” restrictions on selling guns with the killing power of military weapons.
“Not on my watch”
“You either protect the Second Amendment or you implement ‘common-sense gun laws,’ whatever ‘common sense’ is. No one is ever going to agree on what common sense is,” he said, slapping the rostrum.
“Not on my watch, if I’m sent to Congress, will I bend on the Second Amendment.”
Edwards is equally dismissive of arguments that cite the mass carnage caused by guns as reason enough to restrict their distribution. Guns aren’t to blame for America’s epidemic of gun violence, Edwards asserts with no evidence, but rather a “mental health crisis.”
He rejects a well-documented connection between the availability of guns and mental illness for the increase in suicide deaths despite having lost his son, Christopher, to suicide in 2018 “by gunshot,” according to the death certificate.
“We know that having a firearm in the home increases your risk of being injured by your own firearm, and that has been established by sound research,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told The Watchdog in a telephone interview. “Guns are responsible for more suicides than any other means.”
Edwards, 62, was born in Waynesville, grew up in Henderson County and lives in Flat Rock. He often tells of rising by hard work from humble roots to financial and political success. Though confident in public settings, he’s a physically unimposing, slightly stocky man with a goatee and an ear-to-ear combover covering a receding hairline.
He told The Watchdog in an emailed statement that he traces his interest in guns to his childhood “preparing for my first deer hunt” with training from his father and uncle. He said he continues “to do a little hunting today and enjoy sporting clays whenever possible.”
But since entering political office in 2016, his interest shifted sharply away from sport shooting as his reason for owning guns toward two related interests: selling guns and abolishing governmental restrictions on owning them.
To accomplish the former, Edwards applied for and received a Federal Firearms Dealer’s license from the ATF, a certification he frequently and proudly cites in public forums. The license allows him to sell virtually any firearm not outlawed by the National Firearms Act of 1934, which primarily prohibits “destructive devices” such as bombs, missiles, grenades, and mines.
He opened a business in Hendersonville – aptly called Second Amendment Gun Traders – with the intention of developing it as a “sideline business of selling firearms, ammo and hunting and shooting supplies.” The business is located on Main Street in the same office as that of his hamburger franchises and primarily operates as a middleman facilitating sales between gun manufacturers and gun buyers.
“That sideline business hasn’t materialized due to my public service,” he told The Watchdog in a written response to a question about it, adding, “Through word of mouth I’ve enjoyed helping friends obtain firearms they’d been looking for.”
Targeting the ATF
When Edwards won election in 2022, he announced he would refrain from selling guns. But he has replaced his interest in direct gun sales with an undisguised passion for crippling the ATF’s regulatory authority and protecting the gun industry’s profits, which Forbes estimates at about $28 billion annually in civilian wholesale and retail sales.
Edwards declined a request from The Watchdog to speak directly for this article. But in email replies to several questions about his congressional agenda he accused the Biden administration of continuing “to weaponize the ATF to target lawful gun owners with penalty after penalty.” And he pledged “to continue to defend the inalienable rights of our citizens enshrined in our Constitution’s Second Amendment, while looking for ways to address the root causes of gun violence and holding criminals accountable.”
Missing from Edwards’ statements, however, is any acknowledgement of the deaths caused by the easy availability of guns, including suicides and mass killings, most of which are random and many targeting children. When all injuries and lost productivity are included, these gun-related incidents cost the nation’s economy an estimated $500 billion annually, according to a 2022 Harvard Medical School study.
Little wonder that, according to multiple surveys, becoming a victim of a mass shooter is a major worry of millions of American voters and for good reason – an average of 120 people die every day because of guns, and twice that number are wounded.
No matter to Edwards. In his world view, citizens need unfettered access to firearms primarily to protect themselves against “criminals,” a mindset that may have been more relevant to settlers in the Old West than it is to suburbanized Americans today.
There’s no room in Edwards’ world view for the armor-wearing, semi-automatic weapon-bearing societal misfit entering a school, club, church, or shopping mall intent on mass murder. In 2022, according to the non-partisan Gun Violence Archive, there were 647 victims of mass shootings, incidents involving four or more people killed or wounded, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service – a small but horrifying portion of the 20,200 victims of all shootings that year.
In almost every mass shooting, the shooter legally bought the weapon and had no criminal record. So far this year, that number will likely be exceeded with 392 people dying in mass shootings by mid-July.
An even higher percentage — 26,328 people — used guns to kill themselves, not to protect against criminals.
Yet, Edwards insisted in a written statement to The Watchdog that too many guns aren’t the problem: “We do have a mental health crisis in our society today, and we must continue to search for solutions. Confiscating constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners is not a solution.”
Based on his legislative efforts, Edwards is working hard to ensure there are no new “legal prohibitions” hampering access to guns by “law-abiding” people. In fact, he’s working intently to abolish many existing restrictions, including those against sales of AR-style pistols, sawed-off shotguns, hand-held machine guns, suppressors (widely known as “silencers”) and other devices, none of which is appropriate for hunting or sporting uses.
In 1934, Congress passed, and President Franklin Roosevelt signed, the National Firearms Act, the first law in the nation’s history to restrict access to some firearms. The NFA was a direct response to the rise of heavily armed criminal gangs and infamous outlaws such as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, John Dillinger and George “Machine Gun Kelly” Barnes, whose weapon of choice was a Thompson submachine gun, nicknamed the Tommy Gun.
The NFA placed strict restrictions on machine guns, easily concealed short-barrel rifles, and “sawed-off” shotguns. For a time, these restrictions succeeded in removing such weapons from civilian hands. And the law enjoyed broad support, including from the NRA. NRA President Karl T. Frederick testified before Congress in 1934, saying: “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”
In 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the restrictions, ruling that the government had a right, even a duty, to consider public safety in making the law. The opinion gave no consideration to the concept that the Second Amendment suggested otherwise.
Beginning in the 1980s, the NRA did an about-face, driven by the firearms industry’s desperation for new markets and a new, stunning interpretation of the Second Amendment undermining government restrictions. A Supreme Court majority dominated by conservative Republican appointees relied on an “originalist” reading of the amendment, which ignored its predicate phrase, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state ….” and embraced only the second phrase, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Edwards is all in on that second phrase.
“No right of any entity to control gun laws”
“There is no right of any entity to control gun laws,” he said at a pre-election forum in 2022. “It is guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States, ‘The right to bear arms shall not be infringed.’ It’s quite clear.”
Among the bills Edwards has joined is one introduced by far-right firebrand Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, which she calls the “Shall Not Be Infringed Act.” The bill would defund and gut not only the ATF, but every federal program aimed at gun safety, including mental health programs to reduce violence.
In addition, the recently enacted Bipartisan Safer Community Act, which stiffened background checks and expanded red-flag laws, would be stripped of the federal money it needs to be implemented. Also under Boebert’s bill, there would be no waiting periods for gun purchases, no federal records of gun buyers, no rules requiring that guns be safely stored away from children, and no buyer disqualification because of misdemeanor convictions. (This last measure, ironically, would negate the impending prosecution of Hunter Biden for lying about his drug addiction when buying a handgun).
Another bill titled “Stop Harassing Owners of Rifles Today Act” – known by its acronym SHORT — would strip the National Firearms Act of its restrictions on sawed-off shotguns and short-barrel rifles. Critics of this bill contend that it would lead to additional killing because of such weapons’ lethality and would be a boon to the firearms industry.
“One of the big trends in the industry right now is what we call ‘assault shotguns,’” said Kristen Rand, legislative analyst for the non-partisan Violence Policy Center. “What the SHORT Act is really trying to accomplish is to open up a new market for the guy who has every other gun and thinks what he needs now is a sort of assault shotgun.”
Most of the guns sold in the United States are bought by people who already have several, often as many as 10 to 12, Rand said.
“So the manufacturers are in a constant cycle of having to resell to the same market,” Rand said. “For the pro-gun side, it’s always about keeping the industry in business and promoting their products.”
But this will have deadly consequences, Rand continued. “We’re bracing ourselves for a mass shooting with one of these detachable magazine shotguns because you can spray bullets everywhere,” she said. “A shooter in a crowded theater can just keep shooting and reload quickly, which you can’t do with a normal shotgun.”
“It’s horrifying to think about, but it’s inevitable because these things show up in this context,” Rand said.
The industry’s hunger to drive gun sales is also the reason behind another of Edwards’s pet bills called the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, Rand said. The bill would allow anyone with a concealed-weapon permit from one state to carry a concealed firearm in any state with similar laws. Pistols specially designed to be hidden in the owner’s holster or purse would likely enjoy greater popularity and boost sales, she told The Watchdog.
The gun industry would benefit even more directly by a bill called the Firearm Industry Non-Discrimination Act, which Edwards also backs. It would prohibit federal agencies from contracting with any business that “discriminates against a firearm entity or firearm trade association.” For example, if a retailer refuses to sell guns as a matter of policy, it would forfeit participation in federal contracts.
University of Missouri-Kansas City Law professor Allen Roston, who studies the economics of the firearms industry, said this measure was written to strike back at students who reacted to the Parkland High School shooting in South Florida by organizing economic boycotts against businesses benefiting from firearms sales.
“They (students) felt frustrated by the fact that they weren’t able to make any headway [in regulating firearms] in the legislatures, but maybe they could put pressure on businesses by using boycotts and social-media campaigns,” he said.
Many big-box retailers, including Walmart and Target, stopped or limited firearms sales as a result of such pressure. The students also targeted stores and rental-car companies that gave discounts to card-carrying NRA members, Roston said, which infuriated the organization.
Edwards has played a mostly supportive role on these and other anti-regulation bills, deferring to senior colleagues in the House’s Second Amendment Caucus, a gathering of about two-dozen pro-gun lawmakers.
Support for pistol stabilizing braces
Yet he has taken a front-line position in trying to block an attempt by the ATF to close a loophole in the National Firearms Act allowing some newly marketed semi-automatic pistols to be modified with a cheap attachment called a pistol stabilizing brace. This attachment transforms these pistols into the equivalent of a short-barrel rifle, which — like Tommy guns — are strictly regulated and heavily taxed.
Pistols are defined by law as firearms intended to be gripped in the hand; rifles are weapons to be fired while anchored to the shooter’s shoulder, which provides greater accuracy and allows heavier firepower.
The pistol brace is a simple attachment to the hand grip of an AR-style pistol, which then has the ammunition capacity and killing power of the AR-15, the semi-automatic civilian version of the military’s selective-fire M-16 assault rifle.
After being attached to the pistol, the brace can be strapped to the shooter’s arm or tucked under a shoulder. This aid gives the pistol nearly the accuracy of the AR rifle — the weapon often used in mass killings — yet in a size that makes it easy to hide and to use.
Since these braces were marketed about 10 years ago, sales of the otherwise hard-to-shoot pistols have rocketed into the millions. This has been a boon to firearms manufacturers and dealers on the lookout for a new weapon to sell to gun lovers. As many as three million pistol braces have been sold, according to an ATF study.
Gun makers such as Sturm, Ruger — which has a manufacturing plant in North Carolina — as well as Sig Sauer and Anderson Manufacturing, heavily advertise their AR pistols, often pictured with pre-fitted braces. The narrator of an Anderson Manufacturing video for its AM-15 pistol, set to pounding music, called it “an orchestra of metal and hellfire built by calloused hands.”
This has been catnip for killers.
“It was completely foreseeable that those braces, attached to these pistols, would be used in mass shootings,” Rand, the Violence Policy Center’s analyst, said. “Because they’re ideal for that. They give [the shooter] the firepower of a rifle and the concealability of a pistol.”
“So eventually people who plan their mass shootings are going to gravitate toward those types of guns. They’re perfectly designed for mass shootings in enclosed areas,” Rand said.
Connor Betts apparently thought so.
On an August 2019 night, Betts put on body armor, walked into a sports bar in Dayton, Ohio, and unleashed a firestorm of 41 bullets from a bizarre-looking weapon. The 24-year-old murdered nine people, including his sister, and severely wounded 16 others. The victims’ bodies were shredded with multiple wounds, according to the coroner’s report. Betts’s fusillade lasted just 26 seconds. As customers fled in panic, Betts was killed by police on duty in the neighborhood.
In Boulder, Colo., Ahmad Alissa, 21, also liked this weapon.
Alissa, a former high school wrestler known for his joyful wit and sudden eruptions of violence, emerged from his car in the parking lot of the King Sooper grocery at 2:30 p.m. March 21, 2021. He donned a bullet-proof vest and put a menacing-looking gun under his arm, a weapon that witnesses described as a high-powered rifle.
Within seconds, from barely 10 yards away, he shot dead one man and entered the grocery. For the next 58 minutes Alissa stalked the aisles hunting targets. He methodically killed 10 victims, including a policeman he shot in the face who tried to stop him. Workers and shoppers hid or fled. Only when a SWAT team surrounded the store did Alissa surrender.
In both shootings the weapons were misidentified by witnesses as high-powered rifles. They were pistols, AR-style weapons modified with pistol braces. Betts’s pistol also had been fitted with a pair of drum magazines holding 100 rounds.
Alissa’s pistol-braced AR-style Ruger pistol had been legally purchased just four days after a Boulder judge lifted a local ban against the sales of so-called assault weapons. The judge’s ruling came in a lawsuit backed by the NRA.
Authorities in both cases had identical views about the weapons.
Of Alissa’s Ruger pistol, former ATF Agent Joseph Vince said: “It’s not a sporting rifle. It’s not a hunting rifle. It’s made for the military and short-range combat.”
Of Betts’ AR-15 .223 caliber pistol, Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl told the Cincinnati Enquirer the weapon had been “modified in essence to function like a rifle [to] avoid legal prohibitions.” He summarized: “It’s fundamentally problematic to have that level of weaponry in the civilian environment.”
Spurred by these and other mass shootings with modified assault pistols, the ATF — with backing from President Biden — last January announced a new rule classifying these weapons as short-barreled rifles and thus subject to the National Firearms Act. This meant owners would need to register the weapons and pay a $200 licensing fee or permanently separate the pistol from the brace. Failure to do so would be a criminal violation.
Biden said the rule closed “a loophole” not anticipated by the drafters of the Depression-era law. He issued a statement saying:
“For decades, the federal government has placed stricter regulations on short-barreled rifles than other firearms because short-barreled rifles are accurate – like rifles – and concealable and easily maneuvered – like pistols. The gun industry has recently attempted to circumvent this long-standing federal law by selling stabilizing braces that essentially convert a pistol into a short-barreled rifle. Families and communities across the country have paid the price. Dayton, Ohio — nine killed and 27 injured outside a bar. Boulder, Colo. — 10 killed at grocery store… This action will save lives.”
The gun industry and its congressional allies — eagerly joined by Edwards — exploded in anger. At a House committee hearing Edwards argued that adding pistol braces to the AR-style pistols didn’t alter the fact that they remained pistols and thus outside the NFA’s regulations. He claimed the ATF rule change would immediately make “law-abiding gun owners” into felons because pistol braces were fully legal when they were purchased.
Edwards also signed an amicus brief in a pending gun-industry lawsuit to block the new regulation from taking effect. He boasted of his attacks on the ATF on his social media and in a monthly newsletter to constituents.
In a written statement to The Watchdog, Edwards justified his support for the pistol braces saying they are intended “to help disabled veterans protect themselves and realize their Second Amendment rights.”
This argument, also pushed by the NRA, is unsupported by sales or marketing data. It conjures a vision of a one-armed “veteran” using a braced AR-style pistol for self-defense or target shooting. But this vision doesn’t appear in any sales pitch, and homemade videos uploaded to YouTube depict dozens of shooters — none with visible handicaps — using these modified weapons.
Whether any of Edwards’s positions will threaten his re-election is doubtful in this solidly Republican district. But his extreme, pro-gun views may not align with voters even in the mountains of Western Carolina.
A 2022 poll by Raleigh television station WRAL found that 65 percent of voters across the state favored an outright ban on military-style firearms, including a majority of registered Republicans. A similar percentage also wanted to outlaw weapons with high-capacity magazines like those used in several mass shootings, according to the poll conducted by SurveyUSA.
And because of his legislative alliance with pro-gun Republicans in the House, Edwards undermines his own argument that the solution to gun violence lies in mental-health treatments, not gun restrictions. Republican-dominated committees reviewing President Biden’s 2024 request have ignored Biden’s requests to pump more money into mental-health programs focused on gun-violence prevention — the kinds of programs Edwards asserts offer a solution — and are gutting existing programs.
For example, the House appropriations subcommittee reviewing the budgets for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) eliminated all spending on gun-violence prevention research. And the House Republican caucus has called for the ATF’s budget to be rolled back to 2020 spending levels, which would prevent ATF from going ahead with its efforts to keep firearms out of the hands of buyers who appear at risk of violence.
These current actions are consistent with the House Republican playbook. Sharon Zhang, a reporter who tracks the issue for the website Truthout, wrote: “Republicans have spent months, if not years, scapegoating mental health issues as the catch-all [solution] for problems like mass shootings…. In fact, Republicans often dig up supposed covers about mental health in order to distract from other issues.”
Edwards declines support for Democrat’s bill
In the current Congress, veteran Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, whose district includes Houston, introduced a bill called the Mental Health Access and Gun Violence Prevention Act. It would seem to do precisely what Edwards and other pro-gun lawmakers say they seek by funding a variety of mental health programs aimed at reducing the risk of mass shootings and suicides by guns.
The Jackson Lee bill calls for increased spending on mental-health services for teenagers; more funding for gun-safety education, and money to broaden the “National Instant Criminal Background Check System,” which studies have shown has reduced illegal gun sales.
Not a single Republican has agreed to support Jackson Lee’s bill. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, has sent the bill to two committees. where it has languished without a hearing.
As a state senator, Edwards backed numerous pro-gun bills but never actively supported those funding state mental-health programs directly addressing gun violence. The Watchdog asked Edwards in an email if he would be willing to break from his Republican colleagues and add his name in support of Jackson Lee’s bill.
Edwards replied in an email that the bill “is not a serious attempt to address the problem we face today,” suggesting that curbing federal spending was more important.
He correctly noted that the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2022 called for $1.7 billion in mental-health program funding. But he failed to note — and perhaps isn’t aware — that his Republican colleagues reviewing the Biden Administration’s 2024 federal budget request are recommending that none of that money be appropriated, thus starving the programs.
Benjamin, the American Public Health Association’s executive director, told The Watchdog in a phone interview that he is familiar with the ploy by pro-gun lawmakers to use mental-health investments as a rhetorical shield against laws to restrict firearms.
But, Benjamin continued, “I can assure them that we could invest the nation’s entire Gross Domestic Product in mental health and this problem wouldn’t be solved. They’re just speaking the NRA’s talking points and they’re just wrong.”
“And more people are going to die,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story described pistols based on the AR rifle platform as AM-15s, which is a brand name trademarked by Anderson Manufacturing. AR pistols lack a traditional shoulder stock and have a shorter barrel and overall length than a standard AR-15 rifle. Unlike true military assault weapons, which are capable of firing multiple rounds with a single press of the trigger, the civilian AR rifles and pistols are semi-automatic, requiring a trigger pull for each round fired.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter and former executive editor of The Miami Herald. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.