A bill that would repeal the state’s permit system to buy handguns is drawing fire from law enforcement groups, the governor and the N.C. attorney general.
Last month the N.C. Senate amended and passed a bill on concealed carry weapons to include a provision that would eliminate the state’s entire purchase permit system.
On Tuesday, House members delayed a debate on the Senate version and sent the measure to a conference committee made up of four representatives and four senators.
Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, R-Mecklenburg, a committee member, said the sides will try to work out their differences, particularly around the issue of repealing the permit system.
For decades, North Carolina has required would-be gun owners to apply for a purchase permit from their local sheriff before buying a handgun.
The sheriff awards the permits after applicants pass the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and, sometimes, a limited mental health records check.
The permits then serve as a substitute for a background check at the time of the gun sale.
When the House initially approved House Bill 937 in May, the legislation sought to allow concealed carry permit holders to bring handguns into bars or carry them in locked cars on college campuses and government parking lots.
It also sought to create a uniform state standard for reporting mental health and drug abuse information to NICS.
Some law enforcement groups supported the bill, which made no mention of repealing the permitting process.
Then the bill went to the Senate, which passed it June 13 with the added provision to eliminate the need for permits to buy handguns. Sen. Buck Newton, R-Johnston, was the primary member who drafted the Senate’s version of the bill.
“We were not happy about the changes,” said Suzanne Rallis Conway, regional manager for the gun control group Moms Demand Action. “We weren’t happy about the bill in the first place, and they made it 10 times worse.”
Rather than relying on purchase permits, the bill called for a NICS check when someone buys a gun at a licensed dealer, who would do the check.
The N.C. Sheriffs’ Association immediately reversed its stance and opposed the legislation, said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel. The N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police also opposes the bill.
Caldwell said eliminating the purchase permits would allow people to buy guns from unlicensed dealers at gun shows or through personal transactions with no background check at all.
In addition, Caldwell said NICS fails to catch all misdemeanor crimes and mental health records, information that a local sheriff might have.
Mecklenburg Sheriff Chipp Bailey, for instance, checks his office’s transport logs to make sure deputies haven’t taken an applicant to a mental health facility.
“A small fraction of the mental health records are being accessed by NICS,” Caldwell said. “There are a lot of folks with mental health problems that would dissuade them from getting a license. The sheriff will know that.”
Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, a gun rights group, favors getting county sheriffs out of the process. He said eliminating the purchase permits would put North Carolina in line with most other states.
Shortly after the Senate approved the amended bill last month, Gov. Pat McCrory said he favored keeping gun permits in the hands of the local sheriff rather than relying on the federal criminal database.
N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper sent a memo to House members asking that they oppose the bill when it came back from the Senate.
In an interview, Cooper called the permitting process a “significant public safety system.”
“It provides another barrier to prevent criminals, drug users, those with serious mental illnesses from purchasing guns,” Cooper said.
In his June 24 memo, Cooper said that 40 to 50 percent of reported murders in North Carolina since 2003 were committed with a handgun.
Locally, handguns are the most common weapon used in incidents called into the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, according to an Observer analysis.
Police responded to 2,252 calls involving handguns in 2012, a 12 percent increase from the previous year, police data show.
Schaffer, who sponsored the original House bill, acknowledged opposition to eliminating the permit system from the Sheriffs’ Association and government leaders. But she said the House also wants to close current loopholes that allow felons to hold permits.
Handgun purchase permits are good for five years – long enough for a person to be convicted of a felony, serve time and be released with an active permit. A gun dealer has no way of knowing whether the buyer was convicted of a felony after obtaining the license.
“That’s the very problem people are trying to fix with the permit system,” Schaffer said. “That is the felon loophole. There’s no follow-up. There’s no accountability.”
Earlier this year, the Observer matched a database of Mecklenburg County gun purchase holders to a state database of 10 million court appearances since 2008.
Of the county’s 35,000 active gun permit holders, as many as 60 had been convicted of felonies – some involving guns.
Up to five permit holders were convicted of robbery with a dangerous weapon, three of manslaughter and one of second-degree murder. Others were convicted of violent assaults.
The Observer also found as many as 230 permit holders with drug convictions, even though state law says holders can’t use or be addicted to illegal drugs.
The Observer received Mecklenburg’s gun permit data after filing an open records request with the sheriff. If approved, the gun bill would close that data to the public.
Meanwhile, it’s impossible to know whether any of the felons identified by the Observer still hold a permit, since gun shops don’t provide sales data to any agency.
And sheriffs are also left wondering, since the courts do not tell them when a permit holder is convicted of a crime.
Valone said repealing the current system in favor of a NICS check at the federally licensed dealer would eliminate what Schaffer called the “felon loophole.”
But repealing it goes too far, said Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican.
“The sheriff’s department permit system works,” Jeter said. “There are some flaws, but I don’t think you throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Observer staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.
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