Politics & Government

New check system will speed time for getting a handgun or permit in Charlotte

A new computerized mental health check at the courthouse will make it much quicker for Mecklenburg County residents to buy a gun and get the proper permit to carry it.
A new computerized mental health check at the courthouse will make it much quicker for Mecklenburg County residents to buy a gun and get the proper permit to carry it. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

A new computerized background check that started this month has made it much faster for Mecklenburg County residents to legally acquire a handgun or the permit to carry one.

A state law that went in place last December required clerk of court offices around the state to do the mental health background checks required for permits to own a handgun or for concealed carry.

The checks for pistol permits were an add-on. That the new law took effect just before both Christmas – the gun-buying season – and the day before the domestic-terrorism attack in San Bernardino, Calif., led to a surge in gun permit applications.

Mecklenburg Clerk Eliza Chinn-Gary says the number of background checks rose from 150 to 2,500 a month. The 14-day turnaround for approving or rejecting permits grew to a backlog of four months, she said.

Now Chinn-Gary and Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael have put in place a computerized system that allows an almost instantaneous check for commitments and other court-ordered hospitalizations. A records search that once required up to an hour of work for each application now takes a few seconds, Chinn-Gary says. The backlog has been eliminated in less than three weeks.

Carmichael came up with the $28,000 to digitize all judicial hospitalization records and create a searchable database that eventually will link up with the existing federal background system. It’s the first approach of its kind in the North Carolina courts, a legal system starved for adequate technology.

The sheriff said the goal of the new process is to “make sure guns don’t get in the wrong hands.” So far, the county has rejected 94 gun permits for mental-health reasons, he said.

The new system makes its public debut at an unusual time. The country is debating putting limits on gun purchases after last week’s massacre of 49 people in an Orlando, Fla., gay nightclub. The killer, Omar Mateen, had been investigated by the FBI twice for terrorist ties.

If Mateen had lived in Charlotte, the new system would not have stopped him from buying a gun. Though he appeared to have anger problems and other psychological issues, the security guard was never the subject of a commitment hearing so his name would not have popped up on the enhanced Mecklenburg system.

Asked whether she felt mental-health checks alone ensure safety, Chinn-Gary said that is what the law requires. She said she did not see this as a political issue but rather as a required public service that a county partnership has improved.

Charlotte gun shop owner Larry Hyatt said the extended wait quickly became an issue with his customers.

“But once we explained what was happening at the clerk’s office most people were OK,” he said. “They didn’t like it. They wanted it quicker but they understood it.” He credited the county for “an amazing job” to find a solution so quickly.

Carmichael and Trevor Fuller, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, said they both expect an increase in pistol permits after the Orlando shootings. This time, the county is prepared to handle it, they said.

Over the weekend, Hyatt said his Wilkinson Boulevard gun shop had its busiest Saturday in June in 59 years. He credited it to the tragedy in Orlando

“A terrorist attack happens, it seems like half the country wants more gun laws and the other half wants to buy more guns,” he said.

“That’s America.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS