Raleigh, N.C. — A state Senate panel debated legislation Thursday that would make gun permits in North Carolina confidential records, available only through a court order.
The Senate Judiciary Committee didn't vote on Senate Bill 28, which garnered support from law enforcement and gun rights groups but was criticized by the North Carolina Press Association.
"This bill is actually is aimed at the theft of guns," said bill sponsor Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson. He said there's been a "public outcry" from gun owners concerned they could be targeted by thieves.
Greg Stahl, director of government relations for the North Carolina Sheriffs Association, said sheriff's offices statewide have been "flooded with requests" to examine gun permit records, including many requests from people not in the media.
"The list of gun owners also tells you where there are no guns," Stahl said. "If you're a smart person looking for a house to break into, you go to the sheriff's office and ask for the records."
Public permit records do not actually indicate homes that have no guns, since no permits are required for rifles, shotguns or any other long gun.
Still, lobbyists for the North Carolina Firearms Dealers Group and the North Carolina Rifle and Pistol Association argued that there is "no legitimate reason" for people to know who does or doesn't own a gun, adding that publicizing such information has a "chilling effect on the Second Amendment."
"Are we going to protect the information of law-abiding citizens who have chosen to buy handguns?" Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, asked his colleagues.
John Bussian, an attorney for the North Carolina Press Association, argued that that right must be balanced against citizens' right to know.
"This is yet another government record secrecy bill," said Bussian, noting that handgun permits and concealed carry permits are and have always been public records nationwide.
Bussian cited investigative reports that have used permit records to trace the flow of illegal guns.
"We’re here to make sure that, before all this information is made secret forever and ever, that folks here have some real evidence of the need for that secrecy," he said.
"Local media – WRAL in particular – has done a story about permit holders," Bussian said. "While admittedly no names were released, even with that, there’s no evidence I know of that anybody’s been burglarized as a result of it. And I don't expect there will be."
Democrats on the committee echoed that concern.
"Is there any empirical data that proves thieves are using this information and breaking into homes that have guns?" asked Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. "What do we have to suggest that's actually occurring?"
"Why would anybody break into a place that's an arsenal?" asked Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange.
Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, called the bill a solution in search of a problem.
"I just don't know what we're trying to fix," Graham said.
Bingham could not provide any data on burglaries linked to public gun records, but he encouraged critics of the bill to check with local sheriffs.
"There's a lot of evil folks out there," said Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort. "I don't want them to know whether I have a gun or not. I want them to be worried about that if they're thinking about doing evil in my house."
Two small tweaks were made to the original bill to require a court order for the release of gun permit information and to clarify that records kept by gun dealers are private.