A far-reaching bill that expands the places where permit holders can legally carry concealed weapons is drawing praise from gun rights advocates and criticism from some local officials and business owners.
The bill, approved by the N.C. General Assembly, could be signed as early as Thursday by Gov. Pat McCrory. It allows concealed-carry permit holders to take handguns to a range of places, including bars and parks, and store them in locked cars on government, school or university property.
Supporters said the bill will make neighborhoods safer, since concealed-carry permit holders have been vetted by authorities.
But opponents contend that allowing guns where alcohol is served or where children play will only lead to problems.
“How does it make schools safer if guns are stored in locked cars?” asked Jonathan Sink, legislative liaison for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Police chiefs at all 16 University of North Carolina colleges opposed the measure.
Passage of the gun legislation comes at a time when Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are seeing more gun thefts from parked cars and warning residents to avoid keeping weapons there.
Last year, CMPD responded to more than 7,100 total thefts from vehicles, according to an Observer analysis of city data.
Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, R-Mecklenburg, helped craft the final version of the bill. She said a new law would simply add to the places where permit holders can legally leave guns locked in cars. Schaffer said the bill will increase safety by helping people carry guns for their protection while going to campus and dropping kids off at school.
Proponents contend that North Carolina’s 300,000 concealed-carry permit holders passed more stringent background checks than handgun-purchase permit holders.
They must complete a handgun safety course and disclose to the sheriff all mental health records – something not required for regular permits to buy a gun.
“We are expanding the places where law-abiding, trained gun owners can carry their handguns,” Schaffer said. “This certainly doesn’t pose a problem for public safety.”
A sign to bar guns?
The Republican-backed bill would allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring the handguns into bars – as long as the holders don’t consume alcohol and property owners haven’t posted a sign prohibiting such weapons.
Last year, CMPD responded to more than 350 fights, assaults and robberies at bars and taverns, data show.
Eric Flanigan, general manager of Whisky River restaurant and nightclub in uptown’s EpiCentre, said he couldn’t think of any reason why a person should bring a gun into a place that serves alcohol.
“Alcohol inebriates you and makes you do crazy things,” Flanigan said. “After every drink, you start to get a little more inebriated. Why would you want to have a weapon on you?”
Flanigan said he would consider putting up a sign prohibiting guns, and he’s not worried about the possibility of offending patrons who would prefer to bring their concealed weapons.
“If somebody’s got a problem with that, we don’t need them in here,” Flanigan said.
McCrory backs sheriffs’ role
Paul Valone, president of the gun-rights group Grass Roots North Carolina, said law enforcement has minimal problems with concealed-carry permit holders. He said allowing law-abiding citizens to legally carry guns is a strong deterrent to criminals.
But concealed-carry permit holders aren’t flawless, said Fred Baggett legislative counsel for the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police
“We certainly do respect the way concealed-carry permit holders have behaved historically, but at the same time guns are guns and people are people,” he said. “Obviously, we wished for a different outcome.”
Like the police association, the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association had concerns about the bill.
North Carolina is one of two states that require would-be gun owners to apply to their local sheriff for a permit to buy a gun.
Tuesday’s compromise bill deleted a Senate-approved provision that would have repealed the state’s decades-old pistol permit system.
McCrory, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper and the sheriffs’ association all favored keeping the permit system, though the association said the bill fails to completely fix the system’s problems.
Handgun-purchase permits substitute as a background check at the gun shop. They 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.
Meanwhile, a gun dealer has no way of knowing whether the buyer was convicted of a felony after obtaining the license.
Some call this the “felon loophole.”
The bill tries to close the loophole by requiring that sheriffs revoke a permit if a holder is later convicted of a felony.
But that would be difficult, since the sheriff has no way of knowing that a permit holder is convicted of a crime, said Mecklenburg Sheriff Chipp Bailey.
The courts never alert the sheriff’s office of the convictions and the permit database and the courts criminal database are not linked.
“It’s a piece in there that sounds tough, but I’m not sure how it’s enforceable,” Bailey said.
He said shortening the life of a permit or requiring a background check at the gun shop would have helped fix the problem.
Bailey called the legislation a missed opportunity.
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, also acknowledged the problem.
He said the bill does not provide a mechanism or funding for the courts and sheriffs to share information on thousands of permit holders and millions of court convictions.
“I’m not saying the General Assembly did a poor job,” Caldwell said. “I’m saying they did an imperfect job.”
Caldwell said he assumed legislators will fix any problems in the coming sessions.
Mothers group worried
Meanwhile, members of Moms Demand Action, a group that formed after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., last year, are hoping McCrory vetoes the bill.
Suzanne Rallis Conway, regional manager for Moms Demand Action, said allowing guns in bars, playgrounds and in locked cars on school property is asking for trouble.
“There are too many things that can go wrong,” she said.
Staff writers Ann Doss Helms, Ely Portillo and Cleve Wootson contributed.
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