Raleigh, N.C. — Concealed handgun permit holders would be able to lock their handguns in their cars when they park on college campuses under a sweeping gun rights measure that passed the House Judiciary A Committee Wednesday.
The measure increases the potential penalties for some gun-related crimes but is focused on expanding the rights of gun owners, particularly those who hold concealed handgun permits.
Representatives of the National Rifle Association, Grass Roots North Carolina and other gun owner rights groups endorsed the bill during the committee hearing, saying it granted changes long sought by gun owners.
"With respect to the campus provisions on this bill, frankly, it's more limited than we wanted," said Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, adding that his group still supported the bill. "The entire purpose of this is deterrence. We are looking at deterring violent sociopaths from crimes on campuses."
The campus provision applies to all public community college and university campuses in the state. Independent colleges and universities would have the choice of whether to allow firearms on campus but would have to post a prohibition.
"This has been since I remember a hard line in the sand we have refused to cross," said Tim McDowell, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Independent Colleges & Universities Association. "We think the best policy is to ban handguns on higher education facilities."
Jack Moorman, chief of the North Carolina State University Police Department, also said allowing guns on campus was a bad idea. Thefts from cars are one of the most frequent crimes on campus, he said. As well, the campus has experience with concealed handgun permit holders who were either carrying on campus illegally or acting out in other ways.
"We had an individual who communicated threats to the President of the United States on our campus, and he actually had a CCW permit," Moorman said. "So, some of these individuals who have CCW permits are not people we feel comfortable about carrying a firearm on our campus."
Andrew Moretz, a lobbyist for the University of North Carolina system, said that campus police are trained that nobody should be carrying a weapon on campus. That means even a well-meaning civilian who retrieves a firearm from a car and attempts to help in an emergency might be confronted by a confused police officer who could consider him or her a threat.
"We see it as more of a problem than a solution," Moretz said, speaking on behalf of police chiefs from across the 16 UNC campuses.
The committee turned back attempts to alter the provision, including an amendment that would have required that the firearm be locked inside a separate container in the car. Opponents of the extra security measure said a locked container would do little to discourage someone who is breaking into a car.
"If you put a gun in a locked container, you're going to have two items stolen. The gun and the locked container," said Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Randolph.
Bill clears way for bar and restaurant carry
Another section of the bill would allow concealed handgun permit holders to carry their firearms into bars, restaurants and other places where alcohol is served. A similar "restaurant carry" measure passed the House during the 2011 legislative session but hit a roadblock in the state Senate.
Gun rights groups have lobbied hard to push this expansion of their carry privileges.
"I do not drink, but I go out to restaurants that serve alcohol," said Josette Chmiel, a member of Grassroots N.C. "Why am I not permitted to carry my weapon concealed?"
She said that women, particularly, are potential crime victims when walking from restaurants to their cars.
"We are already not permitted to drink while we're carrying," Chmiel said.
A representative of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association said his group was not opposed to the bill.
However, Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, who represents the restaurant-rich downtown Raleigh and Glenwood South neighborhoods, said she had heard from many constituents who did not want patrons carrying guns into their bars and restaurants. This measure would require that they post a "no firearms" sign in order to prohibit guns on the premises.
"I have heard from a number of my constituents who own bars and restaurants who don't want to have to be the ones putting up a sign," Ross said. "They're afraid of being targeted."
Business owners who post such signs have sometimes become the subject of campaigns by gun rights groups, who urge boycotts.
Backers of the bill point out that more than 40 states currently allow concealed handgun permit holders to carry their guns into bars and restaurants.
"We're not saying you have to do it," said Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, R-Mecklenburg, one of the bill's sponsors. She said this gives restaurants the choice of whether to allow guns in or not.
Others pointed out that even those with concealed handgun permits don't obey the law. They pointed to the case of Tennessee Rep. Curry Todd, a Republican who led the push for restaurant carry in that state, who was arrested in 2011 for drunken driving and possession of a gun while under the influence.
However, attempts to strip bar and restaurant section from the bill were unsuccessful.
Democratic amendments fail
Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, tried to amend the bill four different times, failing each time on a party-line vote or a voice vote.
One of his amendments would have required concealed handgun permit holders to pass the same tests for accuracy and judgment that law enforcement officers do.
Current law requires that that permit holders pass only a test standing still. That's far from a real-world situation, Jackson said.
"The Second Amendment doesn't cover my proficiency," Shaffer responded.
That prompted Jackson to respond that the U.S. Supreme Court hasn't granted a blanket ability to keep and bear arms.
"There is no court holding that you have a right to carry a concealed weapon into a bar," Jackson said.
Other, less controversial sections of the bill deal with making sure certain people with certain mental health conditions are promptly reported to the nationwide system used for background checks and would clarify the procedure for someone to restore their firearms rights reported to the national system.
The measure will have to be heard by the full House before being considered in the Senate.