Politics & Government

Gun bill heads to vote over objection of sheriffs

A bill that critics say would allow gun buyers to avoid background checks could head to a House vote as early as Thursday despite the opposition of Gov. Pat McCrory and the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association.

HB 562 would allow concealed guns in the legislature, which one lawmaker called “a recipe for disaster.”

The bill, entitled the Second Amendment Affirmation Act, passed a House panel by a single vote Wednesday after the chairman, Republican Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, broke a 13-13 tie.

The bill, whose sponsors include GOP Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer of Charlotte, also would allow district attorneys and judges to carry concealed weapons in court and reduce the time people convicted of some misdemeanors are banned from owning firearms.

But the most contentious part of the bill would phase out the system requiring handgun buyers to get permits from their local sheriff.

Now handgun buyers must get a permit from the sheriff, who does a background check. The bill would end that program by 2021 and grant exceptions in the meantime.

Supporters say most handgun buyers would be subject to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. They say the federal system would offer a more standardized, less arbitrary system.

The bill “in no way attempts to remove background checks,” Schaffer told the committee. “On the contrary, it’s designed to strengthen background checks.”

Paul Valone, director of Grass Roots North Carolina, a pro-gun group, told lawmakers it was time to end what he called “the Jim Crow-era pistol permitting system (that’s) archaic and arbitrary.”

Jeff Brown, the group’s legislative director, also criticized the current system. “Who would put up with arbitrary and capricious decisions about whether you get driver’s licenses?” he said.

But critics urged lawmakers to keep the current system in place.

“If we do away with the pistol permit process, domestic violence abusers, the dangerously mentally ill, convicted felons and minors would all be able to buy guns from unlicensed dealers,” said Becky Ceartas, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence.

In an interview, Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the sheriffs association, said the current system has several advantages.

He said sheriffs have access to more criminal history than does the national system. The only crimes reported to NICS are those for which someone was finger-printed. That doesn’t include misdemeanors such as simple assault, stalking, and many offenses involving domestic violence.

“The pistol permitting law provides much greater safety to the public than a NICS check,” Caldwell said.

He said it also protects gun sellers from unknowingly selling to a convicted felon. And even unlicensed dealers who aren’t required to use the national background check must get a sheriff’s permit.

That’s one reason the North Carolina Coalition of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, whose 10 mayors include Democrat Dan Clodfelter of Charlotte, urged lawmakers to reject the bill.

“To protect the lives of our constituents, we must be empowered to enforce our gun laws, and our background check system is a vital law enforcement tool,” they wrote.

McCrory spokesman Ryan Minto told the committee the governor opposes the repeal of the current pistol permitting system and could not support the bill “in its current form.” The governor vetoed two unrelated bills last week.

The bill also would allow lawmakers and legislative staffers with concealed carry permits to carry their weapons at the General Assembly.

Critics argued that could strain Capitol police, especially when legislative arguments get heated.

“When we start saying that we as elected officials and our staff can start coming to work with concealed weapons, I think that’s a recipe for disaster,” Democratic Rep. Becky Carney of Charlotte told the panel.

Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Matthews Democrat, said she’d worry about occasions like opening day when children are in the chambers.

Rep. George Cleveland, an Onslow County Republican and bill co-sponsor, said the prospect of armed lawmakers could deter somebody from “doing anything stupid.”

“I just don’t see 70 legislators coming in there with weapons,” he said. “I would be surprised if more than a handful of legislators decide to.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

Related stories from Charlotte Observer