With the gun control debate once again raging in national politics, it’s worth remembering that not all states have the same rules and regulations on firearms.
The school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has renewed a national conversation about gun laws. But in North Carolina, lawmakers haven’t passed major gun legislation since 2015. The law passed then was one of several pro-gun-rights laws that Republicans have passed since taking over control of the legislature in 2011.
But when the state legislature returns to Raleigh in May – or at some other time in the future – there could be public pressure to address school safety, gun control or both.
Last month, nearly all of the 3,000 students at Cary’s Green Hope High School walked out of school to protest a lack of action from politicians following the Parkland shooting. Other local schools are planning walk-outs on Wednesday, which will be the one-month anniversary of that Florida shooting, which killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
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So as discussion here gears up once more, people interested in either side of the gun debate should know what laws are already on the books here.
In some ways, North Carolina has tougher restrictions than other states – like a law requiring background checks for private sales of handguns.
But in other cases, North Carolina’s laws are looser than elsewhere. For example, people are allowed to bring guns to their kids’ little league games or when they go running on a greenway, and it’s OK to carry a gun concealed at a bar as long as you aren’t drinking.
So what rules do – or don’t – apply to gun owners in North Carolina? Here’s a brief summary.
Guns and domestic violence
When it comes to domestic violence, North Carolina has stronger gun control rules in some circumstances, and weaker rules in other circumstances.
North Carolina bans people with even a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction from getting a concealed carry permit, and in some cases the courts can also ban domestic abusers from buying guns in the future.
Furthermore, North Carolina is one of only seven states that require judges to force abusers to surrender their guns – if there are allegations of violence or violent threats. Most states just give the judge that option. However, some states also give judges the option to order abusers to surrender guns even in cases that don’t involve imminent threats of violence, but North Carolina specifically forbids that.
An accused abuser doesn’t even have to be convicted in criminal court of domestic violence to be ordered to surrender his guns; he just has to be subject to a restraining order. When there are particularly troubling allegations, especially involving the abuse of children or threats of immediate violence, courts can grant temporary restraining orders without the accused abuser getting the option to defend himself first.
Gregory Wallace, a constitutional law professor at Campbell University Law School in Raleigh, said concerns have been raised that people can lose their guns – even just temporarily – without the chance to tell their side of the story in court.
“Even though there eventually is a judicial hearing on the matter, these orders can unjustifiably deprive people of their constitutional rights, whether out of malice or sincere but mistaken concern,” Wallace said.
Supporters of the law cite safety concerns. Most of the women murdered in America are killed by current or former partners, and most of their killers used a gun.
And Amily McCool, the executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she believes state law doesn’t go far enough in defining what types of violence judges can cite in forcing an abuser to surrender his guns.
“A victim could literally have bruises from head to toe from a severe beating and a judge might not determine that injury to qualify as ‘serious’ because the victim didn’t have to get stitches or have any broken bones,” McCool said. “But that assault was absolutely violent.”
A 2015 court case also has worried some advocates for victims of domestic violence.
A federal appeals court, in a case known as U.S. v. Vinson, ruled that North Carolina’s legal definition of assault is too broad for the federal government to consider as it relates to federal gun restrictions or charges. That means that in some cases, people with a domestic violence-related assault conviction in North Carolina might still pass a federal background check for a gun.
Can the government take your guns?
No. Or, at least, not unless they’re being seized as evidence for trial.
Even when it becomes illegal for people to own a gun – like after they have been convicted of a felony or involuntarily committed to a mental hospital – police don’t come in and take away their guns.
That’s partially because government officials typically have no idea who owns guns, or how many. Durham had been the only county in North Carolina that tracked who owned handguns – but that registry was shut down in 2014 by the North Carolina General Assembly.
Even in domestic violence cases in which the abuser is required to surrender his guns, police can’t go and take the guns. Instead, the abuser has to surrender the guns on his own and promise that he didn’t keep any.
What guns are illegal?
For the most part, American citizens and legal permanent residents who are over 21 can buy any gun they want. People over 18 can buy rifles and shotguns, but not handguns.
And people who aren’t yet old enough to buy their own guns can still use other people’s guns in certain circumstances, like if they have their parents’ permission.
It’s a common misconception that highly dangerous weapons like machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and other “weapons of mass destruction” are illegal for people outside the military to own. But it’s actually completely legal to buy those weapons as long as you have a National Firearms Act permit, which requires extra fees and background checks.
And this area is one where North Carolina has looser gun control rules than most other states.
Before 2015, local law enforcement officials were allowed to use their discretion in denying someone one of those permits – for example, if the applicant had never been convicted of a crime but the county sheriff knew he was a gang member, or if the sheriff simply didn’t want any locals owning machine guns.
But that changed after former Gov. Pat McCrory signed a wide-ranging gun bill into law that included several changes, including one requiring sheriffs to approve those NFA permit applications as long as the person meets all the guidelines.
Most other states give law enforcement more control over the decision.
In addition to machine guns and sawed-off-shotguns, an NFA permit also allows people to buy otherwise illegal gun attachments like silencers and suppressors, or shoulder stocks for pistols.
Some states also have laws outlawing magazines that hold more than a certain number of bullets, but North Carolina does not.
Background checks and gun permits
When people talk about universal background checks, it’s not always clear what they mean.
Sometimes they are talking about making all states participate in the federal background check system, called NICS. Other times, support for universal background checks can mean requiring private sales to be subject to background checks.
North Carolina has a mixed record on those two issues.
It is one of the few states to require background checks for private sales of handguns, although private sales of rifles and shotguns can still happen without background checks. Private sales include everything except for buying a gun from a licensed dealer – like making a purchase from someone at a gun show at the fairgrounds, or from a friend or family member.
As for background checks in general, federal law requires background checks on gun purchases through NICS. However, the federal government is forbidden from forcing states to send in information. And most mental health records never make it into the system. As of 2016, North Carolina was considered a partial participant in NICS.
The fact that most states don’t send in all of their mental health records means that if someone has serious mental issues in one state but then moves to another state and tries to buy a gun, they might not be flagged on a background check.
Guns in cars
The way you store a gun in your car can change how the law views it.
For instance, it’s illegal to carry a concealed gun in a car without a concealed carry permit. And if you’re pulled over while driving with a concealed gun, you are legally required to tell the police officer you’re carrying.
In a car, a weapon is considered concealed if it’s out of sight but readily accessible, like under the seat, in a purse or in an unlocked glove box.
But if the glove box is locked, or if the gun is in the trunk or in another locked container, it’s not considered a concealed weapon. So that’s one option for people who want to travel with guns but don’t have a concealed carry permit. It’s also legal to travel with a gun, and without a concealed carry permit, if the gun is openly displayed.
There are clear legal distinctions about the right to carry guns in North Carolina. People can carry openly in some places as long as they can legally own a gun, but no one can carry a concealed gun without a permit.
The concealed carry application process is handled by the sheriff of the county you live in; it consists of a $90 fee, a background check and a test of basic firearms skills.
Anyone who has gotten a concealed carry permit in any other state can also legally carry concealed in North Carolina. And 36 states – including all the states that border us – recognize concealed carry permits granted here.
Concealed carry isn’t allowed everywhere, but since Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011 they have been expanding the list of places where people can carry concealed guns.
North Carolinians can now carry guns in bars and restaurants, but only if they don’t have even a drop to drink and the gun remains concealed the whole time. Also, bars and restaurants are allowed to ban weapons.
People can also carry concealed weapons at highway rest stops and public parks, as well as public gatherings like funerals and parades.
Open carry is also allowed in many, but not all, of the same places as concealed carry. For instance, you can carry openly at rest stops – but not at funerals or parades, unless you get permission from local law enforcement first.
Guns in schools
It remains illegal to carry guns inside of any school, public or private, unless you’re with campus security.
People with a concealed carry license can store guns in their car at all public schools, however, as well as at private schools that haven’t prohibited that.
A 2013 law also lets counties set up systems for people with law enforcement or military backgrounds to volunteer as gun-carrying school guards. No counties have done so yet, but Rockingham County is considering it in the wake of the Parkland school shooting in Florida.
Some state lawmakers also want to arm teachers, but it remains to be seen how that proposal – which is unpopular with most Americans – will play out.
Closer to home, a poll conducted by The News & Observer and Elon University last week found that 4 out of every 5 North Carolina teachers think it’s a bad idea.
In North Carolina, the main supporter of the push to arm teachers also pushed a conspiracy theory after the Parkland shooting that Democrats “are doing these things to push for gun control so they can more easily take over the country.”
PolitiFact NC ruled his claim that “so many of these shooters turn out to be communist Democrats” as Pants On Fire. The legislator, Cabarrus County Republican Larry Pittman, apologized for his comments.
Where you can’t ever carry
But even as the state has recently opened up more places to people who carry firearms, there remain many places where no one outside of law enforcement can carry a gun, no matter what.
That includes banks as well as government buildings including schools, museums, the General Assembly and the State Capitol. Police stations, jails and prisons are also off limits for obvious reasons.
It’s also illegal to bring a gun anywhere that has a sign posted banning the carrying of weapons, or into businesses where the owner tells you that it’s banned.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story said North Carolina laws forcing domestic abusers to give up their guns are tougher than laws in other states. The story has been updated to reflect that state rules on that subject are stricter in some circumstances and weaker in other circumstances.