One of the only surviving bills in the N.C. General Assembly related to gun control would close permit information to the public, making it nearly impossible for groups to watchdog how the government issues licenses to buy hundreds of thousands of handguns.
At many as 14 other bills concerning guns died last week when they failed to pass at least one chamber of the legislature before Thursdays deadline.
The bill to seal the permit records, however, passed the House nearly two months ago and seems headed for approval in the Republican-controlled Senate, lawmakers said.
The Observer recently used data from the Mecklenburg Sheriffs Office to find dozens of felons some violent who may hold active permits to buy guns. The group includes people convicted of murder, manslaughter and robbery with a dangerous weapon.
The newspaper also identified as many as 230 permit holders with drug convictions. North Carolina law says permit holders cant use or be addicted to illegal drugs.
With the data closed, citizens, news reporters or other watchdogs would be unable to learn if felons or drug abusers have active permits.
Supporters of closing the data cite the need to protect the privacy of gun owners.
The move was spurred partly by a suburban New York newspapers decision in December to create an online map of local gun owners. The House approved the bill, 97-20.
This is not anything about trying to conceal information, said Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, who supports the bill. I just see it as a mistake waiting to occur.
Bingham is the publisher of the Denton Orator, a weekly newspaper. He said readers would chase him out of town if he were to publish the names of permit holders in his area.
But when told of the Observers findings, Bingham said the state needs to fix its permitting system.
Permits are good for five years, long enough for a person to obtain a permit, commit a felony, and be sentenced and released from jail with the permit still valid. The courts dont usually notify sheriffs when the person is convicted. Even if they do, the Sheriffs Office has no authority to revoke the permit.
Thats a problem because a valid purchase permit in North Carolina substitutes as a background check at the gun shop.
I think the solution is going to be immediate revocation when convicted of a felony, Bingham said. I dont see how else to resolve it.
Keeping permit records open, he said, isnt going to solve the problem of preventing felons from holding permits.
But many Democrats oppose closing the gun data.
I dont want big brother looking over every shoulder, but I do want someone trying to keep up with who might be off kilter in my community, said Sen. Martin Nesbitt Jr., D-Buncombe, a gun collector himself. We cant keep finding out about it after we have 20 dead.
Two bills that supporters said would have strengthened North Carolinas permitting system died last week.
One would have cut the life of a permit to three years. The other would have given sheriffs the authority to revoke a permit if the holders were convicted of a crime that would have barred them from getting the permit in the first place.
Sheriffs offices balk
To prove that felons might hold active gun permits, the Observer matched a Mecklenburg database of gun permit holders with a state database of criminal convictions.
Mecklenburg Sheriff Chipp Bailey provided permit data after a records request.
Were going to do what the law says, as much as I dont like it, Bailey said.
But not all sheriffs released permit data.
When asked for its records, the Gaston County Sheriffs Office released only aggregate gun permit information, keeping private the names and addresses of permit holders.
The Cherokee County Sheriffs Office declined to provide any permit data.
Sen. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth, said shed like to find a way to protect gun owners privacy especially that of single women but does not want the records closed.
Neither does Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake.
Blue said he would hate to stop watchdog groups from investigating the government, especially when sheriffs offices have a hard time finding felons themselves..
Its ridiculous to close access to the point that you cant do research, Blue said.
Nesbitt Jr., Parmon and Blue sit on a Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hear the bill.
Awaiting in the Senate Rules Committee is another gun bill that survived Thursdays deadline.
That bill, sponsored by four Republican House members, would allow concealed carry permit holders to take guns into bars, restaurants, college campuses and greenways.
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