The day before Wednesday’s deadly California shootings, a new North Carolina law took effect that one law enforcement official says clarifies and could even strengthen state background checks for handgun buyers.
The change, passed by the General Assembly last summer, involves the criteria that sheriffs use in evaluating applications for handgun permits.
North Carolina is one of just 18 states that require background checks for handgun purchases.
Gun laws around the country are once again under scrutiny after two attackers in California killed 14 people at a social services center in San Bernadino. Police say the pair was armed with rifles, handguns and multiple ammunition magazines.
In North Carolina, gun advocates tried to phase out the handgun permitting system this year. Early versions of the so-called Second Amendment Affirmation Act would have ended the permit system by 2021.
But the system survived after protests from sheriffs and gun control advocates as well as a clarifying change proposed by the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association.
Our major concern is that (it) stays in place. That’s our bottom line, that this system needs to stay in place and it needs to be as strong as possible.Be
cky Ceartas, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence
In addition to checking applicants’ criminal history, sheriffs evaluate their “good moral character.” Until Tuesday, they could review an applicant’s entire past. Now they can only consider character over the past five years.
For example, officials say that if authorities have responded to calls of domestic abuse and no one was arrested or charged, that could still be a blemish on their “moral character.”
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and and general counsel of the Sheriffs’ Association, said the new language clarifies the law without weakening it.
“The end result would be the same,” he said Thursday. “This change would clarify how you apply this ‘good moral character’ analysis, but it would not tip the scales in any direction. It would not cause more permits to be issued; it would not cause more permits to be denied.”
Another change that took effect this week involves an applicant’s mental health history. The law now allows a sheriff to consider any court orders involving mental health in assessing whether to issue a handgun permit. That was not part of the existing law.
“It strengthens the law,” Caldwell said.
Kristin Goss, an associate professor of public policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, said more states are doing some kind of mental health screening.
“To the extent North Carolina is strengthening background checks, that’s part of a national trend,” said Goss, co-author of “The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know.” “The problem is the background system is still a very patchwork system across the states.”
Becky Ceartas, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, was one of the people who fought to save the pistol permit system.
“Our major concern is that (it) stays in place,” she said. “That’s our bottom line, that this system needs to stay in place and it needs to be as strong as possible.”