About the only thing that proponents and opponents of tougher gun measures in the N.C. General Assembly agree on is this: The current permitting system isn’t working.
Gun rights groups say sheriffs have too much leeway in determining who can get a permit to buy a gun.
Gun control groups say the county-by-county permitting system prevents sheriffs from uniformly protecting the public because its vague standards are open to varying interpretations.
After weeks of debate on dozens of measures, two bills that supporters say would strengthen North Carolina’s permitting system are expected to die on Thursday – the deadline for most legislation to pass at least one chamber of the General Assembly.
One gun bill, sponsored by Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford, would shorten the length of a gun permit from five to three years. That would lessen the possibility that permit holders could be convicted of a felony and still have a valid permit, Adams said.
State law prohibits felons from holding permits to buy guns.
A second bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Henry Michaux Jr., D-Durham, would let sheriffs revoke permits if the holders were convicted of a crime that would have barred them from getting a permit in the first place.
Both bills have been in the House Rules Committee since mid-April.
But at least one bill concerning gun permits has already passed Thursday’s deadline.
A bill to close gun permit data to the public has already passed the House.
Gun rights groups want the records closed to avoid misuse by the media. Gun control groups want the records open as a means to watchdog who is given a permit.
Felons with gun permits
An Observer investigation published Sunday found as many as 63 felons could still hold active Mecklenburg County permits to buy guns. They include people convicted of murder, manslaughter and robbery with a dangerous weapon.
The Observer’s analysis – which used gun permit data that the General Assembly is looking to close – also identified as many as 230 permit holders with drug convictions.
North Carolina law says permit holders can’t use or be addicted to illegal drugs.
Only one of the felons identified by the newspaper was awarded a permit before his conviction.
The sheriff lists all as holding a valid permit, but because gun dealers don’t report their sales to any agency, it’s impossible to know if the felons still have active permits.
“It’s definitely a big concern for all families to know there are people out there who can buy a handgun who are felons,” said Suzanne Rallis Conway, a state chapter leader of Moms Demand Action, a gun control organization. “That is something that needs to be communicated. Otherwise, these purchase permits are meaningless.”
Mecklenburg Sheriff Chipp Bailey said the Sheriff’s Office often does not know if a permit holder is convicted of a felony. On that front, there’s no communication between the courts and the sheriff, he said.
Likewise, sheriffs have no authority to revoke a permit from a known felon.
“I would be open to it (revoking a permit) if there’s a way to do it,” Bailey said. “I just don’t know logistically, as many that get issued, how we’re going to do that.”
The Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office received more than 12,000 gun purchase permit applications in the first nine months of this fiscal year – a 27 percent increase from all 2008.
Gun permit debate
Paul Valone has owned a gun since he was 18.
The 54-year-old Charlotte resident says he spends 60 hours a week volunteering for Grass Roots North Carolina, a gun rights organization.
He said he wants the state to repeal its permitting system to buy handguns.
Rallis Conway has never fired a gun. The Charlotte mother of four boys leads a North Carolina chapter of Moms Demand Action.
She sees problems with the state’s permitting system, too.
Sheriffs, meanwhile, said their knowledge of the community and the resources at their disposal make them the best option to determine who can have a gun.
In North Carolina, government-issued permits are the only legal way to buy handguns.
The permits cost $5 and are awarded by local sheriffs after applicants pass limited background checks. The permits then act as a substitute for a check at the gun shop.
Depending on whom you ask, North Carolina’s permitting system to buy a handgun is too archaic, vague, inadequate or incomplete.
It gives sheriffs too much authority to issue permits, or it prevents uniformity among counties.
Since 2000, Valone has twice asked the N.C. General Assembly to rewrite the state’s firearms laws. Both attempts failed.
He calls the permitting system – adopted in 1919 – leftover provisions from the Jim Crow era, when white law enforcement officers wanted to limit the number of firearms in the hands of African-Americans.
“This thing was designed to give sheriffs latitude on whether or not they issue permits,” Valone said. “The system is ridiculous.” Fewer than 10 states have a purchase permitting system, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Included in North Carolina’s permitting laws is the requirement that a permit holder be of “good moral character.”
Attorney Dan Hardway said that’s an overly vague constraint that most states have long done away with.
Hardway says he gets about three or four calls a month from North Carolina residents who believe they were unfairly denied a permit to buy a handgun.
There’s a better permitting option, he said.
Most states don’t require a permit to buy a handgun and instead have gun shops run a National Instant Criminal Background Check.
Doing that would take any discretion or favoritism out of the sheriff’s hands, Hardway said.
“I think that’s a whole lot more efficient system,” he said. “You get rid of an arbitrary application of a vague standard.”
But it’s precisely that discretion by local sheriffs that law enforcement officers like.
Sheriffs often know their communities best, said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association.
A criminal background check wouldn’t flag a person who threatened his neighbor last week – an act a local sheriff might know about, Caldwell said.
The national system also misses some mental health records, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a nationwide gun control effort.
As of 2011, North Carolina ranked 13th best in submitting mental health records to NICS, the group reported. The state has made vast improvements since the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, when a gunman with a history of mental problems killed 32.
Before the university shooting, North Carolina submitted very few mental health records to NICS, said a report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
In addition to an NICS check, Mecklenburg Sheriff Bailey said he looks to see if his office has taken a handgun purchase applicant to a mental health facility. Those checks are not required under North Carolina law, and the records might not show up under the national background check.
“We check our transport log just because we think it’s good due diligence to our citizens,” Bailey said.
But Bailey acknowledges there’s considerable subjectivity when it comes to issuing permits.
That’s a problem, Rallis Conway said.
“I don’t think that’s a good thing at all,” she said. “There should be something uniform.”
For example, some sheriffs might consider a person with several misdemeanor drug convictions to lack good moral character, even though the law lets people convicted of misdemeanors hold permits to buy a gun.
Bailey said he errs on the side of public safety with the understanding that those who are turned down can appeal to a district judge.
Last month, an Observer survey showed a district judge in Mecklenburg allowed 27 of 35 petitioners to acquire a handgun or concealed carry permit – despite the sheriff’s denial.
“Every law enforcement officer in the state exercises discretion every day,” Caldwell said.
He said awarding a gun permit should be no different.
Ladd Everitt, spokesman for Washington, D.C.’s, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, agreed.
Everitt said the more local the investigation into a person’s background, the better.
But there are holes in North Carolina’s permitting laws, Everitt said.
Two of those holes – the five-year lifespan and the inability for sheriffs to revoke a permit – will likely remain holes after Thursday.
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