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State’s gun permit system is safety check

N.C. lawmakers have talked a lot lately about the safety of North Carolinians. They have a prime opportunity to match words to action. They should listen to the governor, the state’s attorney general and law enforcement groups and reject a Senate bill’s provision that would eliminate the state’s permit system to buy handguns.

This provision doesn’t protect North Carolinians. It puts them in jeopardy.

Attorney General Roy Cooper rightly notes that the gun permitting process is a “significant safety system. It provides another barrier to prevent criminals, drug users, those with serious mental illnesses from purchasing guns.”

Further, now is the wrong time to ease restrictions. Crimes involving handguns are on the rise. Last year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police alone responded to more than 2,000 calls involving handguns – a 12 percent increase from 2011. In a memo to lawmakers asking them to oppose the bill, Cooper said 40 to 50 percent of reported murders in the state since 2003 were committed with a handgun.

The permitting process does have weaknesses. As Observer reporter Gavin Off notes, handgun purchase permits are good for five years – long enough for a person to be convicted of a felony, serve time and be released and in possession of a gun permit that’s still active.

Felons are by law not allowed to have guns. But gun dealers would have no way of knowing that a buyer was convicted of a felony after having obtained a permit. An Observer investigation this year showed some felons did indeed hold gun permits. As many as 60 of Mecklenburg County’s 35,000 active gun permit holders were felons including three convicted for manslaughter and one for second-degree murder.

That loophole is one cited by advocates of eliminating the permitting process done by N.C. sheriffs. They say a background check by gun dealers at the time of purchase to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System should replace the state system.

But this should not be an either/or situation. In fact, it would be dangerous for lawmakers to make it so.

Sheriffs already use NICS in awarding gun permits. But they use other sources as well, making their checks “much more extensive,” Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the N.C. Sheriffs Association, told the Observer editorial board Wednesday. Caldwell noted that some misdemeanors that disqualify N.C. buyers from legally purchasing a gun don’t appear in the NICS.

NICS background checks come up short in other ways too. Since it was created in 1998, that system has blocked more than 1.9 million permit applications and gun sales to felons, people with seriously mental health problems and other dangerous people. But a 2012 Government Accountability Office review found most states submitting few mental health records or files on drug arrests to NICS. The lapses on mental health records are especially stark: 23 states and the District of Columbia had submitted fewer than 100 mental health records to the federal database; 17 states had submitted fewer than 10 mental health records; and four states had not submitted any. As many as 1.5 million people ruled mentally unfit to own a gun don’t appear in the NICS database.

Lawmakers would be wise to fix the loopholes in the state’s permitting process. But they don’t need to – nor should they – repeal the system to do so.

Eliminating the permitting process removes an essential backstop to keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

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