Raleigh, N.C. — A sweeping firearms bill that passed the House Rules Committee on Wednesday morning would narrow the number of gun sales for which a background check is conducted, but would allow the state agriculture commissioner to ban firearms at the North Carolina State Fair.
House Bill 562 cleared narrowly, 14-13, with Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, breaking a tie vote. Among the "no" votes on the bill were Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, and Rep. Paul Tine, U-Dare, who works with the Republican caucus.
The bill has been the subject of rollicking discussion in the state House for most of this year's session, both in public and behind closed doors. Although the bill touches on many different parts of the state's firearm laws, its headline feature is ending North Carolina's system of permits for pistol purchases issued by local sheriffs.
That provision faces opposition from Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who sent a legislative liaison to the committee Wednesday to deliver the message that the governor won't support the bill in its current form. Sheriffs across the state have also expressed opposition to the measure.
"I'm for anything that makes things simple, but I'm also for keeping it safe," said Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison.
Under current law, federally licensed firearm dealers must run a National Instant Criminal Background Check, or NICS check, when selling a rifle or shotgun to an individual. That rule does not apply to private transactions, in which one individual sells a rifle to another individual.
However, in order to buy a handgun from either a federally licensed seller or an individual, a North Carolina resident legally needs to either hold concealed weapon permit or obtain a pistol purchase permit from a sheriff.
House Bill 562 "in no ways attempts to remove background checks for people looking to obtain handguns," said Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, R-Mecklenburg, the bill's primary sponsor.
That's not quite right.
Starting in 2018, federally licensed dealers would no longer be required to ask for a pistol purchase permit. Rather, they would be able to run a NICS check. In 2021, North Carolina's pistol purchase permit would expire altogether. That means private sales that currently require a pistol purchase permit would not require any sort of background check.
Schaffer and advocates for the bill says NICS does as good of a job as sheriffs do, but Harrison said that's not so. For example, he said, NICS looks only at convictions rather than pending cases, and its mental health background is incomplete.
"NICS is just not set up to do the job that sheriffs do," Harrison said.
After the meeting, House Minority Leader Larry Hall blasted the bill and said Democrats would fight to narrow its scope on the House floor Thursday.
"Something we have in place that works for North Carolina is being pushed aside," Hall, D-Durham, said of the pistol permit. "The citizens of North Carolina should be protected from people who have criminal backgrounds and who might be mentally ill. Today's vote would make it easier for a dangerous or unstable individual to buy a gun."
Paul Valone, president of gun-rights group Grass Roots North Carolina, said the permit system is unevenly enforced statewide, and the five-year permits could allow purchases by people who no longer would meet the requirements of an immediate background check.
"Background checks will still be done, only now, all of them will be done at the point of sale instead of as much as five years earlier under our present system," Valone said.
Shaffer said that standardizing background checks and taking decisions out of the hands of individual law enforcement officers will make gun sales safer.
"This is not because we think the sheriffs are doing a bad job in any given case, but we think that we can do better," she said.
Other provisions less controversial
Harrison does favor another provision of the bill that would let the agriculture commissioner ban handguns and other weapons at the State Fair, a long-standing practice that has been a subject of a lawsuit.
"With that many people, you don't needs guns around," he said.
Another provision in the bill would allow lawmakers and legislative staff to carry concealed handguns in the legislative complex, on the floor of the House and the Senate and elsewhere around the building.
Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, said long hours and tense debates make lawmakers and staff alike irritable.
"I think it's a recipe for disaster, and I'm really sorry this has been put in there," Carney said.
Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, said he didn't think many lawmakers would choose to carry firearms around the Legislative Building.
"We don't have a large security element around our building, and I'm comfortable with that and would like it to stay like that," Cleveland said, adding that the possibility that lawmakers are carrying would deter troublemakers.
Hall ridiculed that provision, saying he would propose an amendment to pay lawmakers and legislative staff so they could buy body armor and ensure everyone is safe in the Legislative Building.
"I take great exception to the idea that everyone should be allowed to walk around with a gun and that those are the only people who will be protected," he said.
In addition to Grass Roots NC, the National Rifle Association backs the bill.
"We're a little disappointed with some things weren't included, but it's a good bill and we support it," Valone said.
Opponents of the bill said that it would increase the number of deadly incidents in the state.
"Another way to prevent a bad guy with a gun is to stop them from getting a gun in the first place," said Wesley McMahon, an Orange County father who spoke against the measure.
"We have our sheriffs participate in weeding out people with criminal intent and criminal backgrounds. That keeps us all safer," said McMahon, who brought his 2-year-old daughter to the committee meeting.