Raleigh, N.C. — After a long, heated floor debate, North Carolina House lawmakers voted Tuesday to tentatively approve a controversial gun bill, but only after dismantling several of its most contentious provisions.
House Bill 562 would loosen state restrictions on who can carry a concealed weapon and where those weapons can be carried.
Sponsor Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, R-Mecklenburg, said the bill "balances Second Amendment protections while significantly strengthening background checks for individuals seeking to obtain firearms – handguns and long guns alike."
In its original form, the bill would have repealed the state's requirement that handgun buyers obtain a pistol purchase permit from his or her county sheriff. House lawmakers overwhelmingly voted in favor of amendments to restore the permit requirement.
While purchasers who go through federally licensed dealers must undergo a background check through the federal system known as NICS, people who buy and sell guns privately are not subject to the federal check. The pistol purchase permit provides a background check for those sales as well.
Under an amendment by Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, the permits would be restored but with some changes:
- Sheriffs could no longer require documentation of "good moral character."
- The application forms would be standardized statewide and made available electronically.
- Sheriffs would have to act more quickly to approve or reject the permits and could look at the applicant's behavior only over the past five years.
Several of the more conservative Republicans in the House protested the restoration as "tyranny" and "government intrusion."
"Requiring a permit is an infringement [of Second Amendment rights], and we need to do away with it. Why would free people tolerate that infringement of one of the most basic rights of American citizens?" asked Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus.
"Who is the sheriff to determine if I’ve got good moral character? This is ridiculous," argued Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven. "This isn’t Mayberry. They don’t know who all the people are. They don’t know you."
But others – Republicans and Democrats alike – said they had heard from their local sheriffs and law enforcement agencies that the permits serve a valuable purpose because they catch things, such as repeated domestic violence calls to an applicant's house, that the federal database does not capture.
"These are the people on the line every day, and if their belief was this was the best way to make the community safer and law enforcement better and safer, I was going to stick with them," said Rep. John Fraley, R-Iredell.
Rep. Gary Pendleton, R-Wake, said having to go to the sheriff's office to get the permit deters those who want to buy a gun to commit a crime and prevents impulse gun purchases made in anger.
"I believe it could keep people from doing some mass murders by having to go to the trouble to get a permit," Pendleton said. "In Wake County, it takes about a week to get a pistol permit, so that gives you a lot of cooling-off time."
McNeill's amendment, which passed 77-38, superseded an earlier amendment by Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, to partially restore the permit. That, too passed with bipartisan support.
No guns in legislature
Lawmakers also fiercely debated a provision in the bill that would have allows them and their staffers to carry concealed weapons in the Legislative Building.
“There are places where we don’t need guns," said Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston.
Daughtry said the legislature tries to settle differences between members through debate, and adding firearms to the question wouldn't help, especially when debates get emotional.
“Having guns around doesn’t help anybody," he said.
Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, called the proposal "absurd." She said the General Assembly Police do a good job of keeping everyone safe at the legislature, so there's no need to have scores of other people armed.
"If we leave this in there, I’m going to feel more afraid than ever," Carney said. "I’m beginning to think this bill is more about 'Shoot now and ask later.' This is one piece in this bill we do not need."
Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, who authored the provision as a separate bill, said concealed weapons are a deterrent to potential violence at the legislature, noting a 2011 incident in which same-sex-marriage advocates burst onto the House floor, as well as the more recent Moral Monday protests.
"It's just a matter of time until we have an incident here," Collins said, adding that having armed lawmakers and staffers could forestall the need for metal detectors and other security measures at the Legislative Building.
"Why should I give up my right to protect myself when I walk into this building?" Speciale added. "As a free nation, as free people, we should have the right to protect ourselves wherever we are."
Daughtry's amendment passed 69-44.
Other changes made, more still possible
An amendment by Rep. Rena Turner, R-Iredell, called for reinstating lifetime bans on concealed carry permits for people convicted of certain misdemeanors, such as stalking or child abuse. The bill would have allowed people convicted of such crimes to carry a concealed weapon three to five years after their conviction.
"We’re trying to save lives, save families," Turner told her coleagues. "It does protect people."
"If we don't pass this amendment, three years after your wife, three years after your daughter is stalked, her perpetrator can get a concealed carry license, and we know the data says they are repeat offenders," Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, said during an impassioned speech supporting Turner's amendment.
Sponsor Schaffer opposed the amendment, saying it was overcompensating for something that other sections of the address.
"It takes a wider swipe at what we're trying to do," she said.
Collins said permanently taking away someone's ability to carry a concealed weapon for a misdemeanor "gives me a shiver."
"I'm very loathe to take away someone's constitutional rights for a lifetime based on a misdemeanor offense," he said.
Other lawmakers noted that North Carolina has the toughest standard for misdemeanors in the nation, classifying all crimes that carry up to two years in prison as a misdemeanor, compared with other states that limit it to one year in prison.
The amendment passed 87-26.
House Speaker Tim Moore cut off debate on amendments shortly before 5:30 p.m., saying some members had scheduled appointments. About 10 amendments were still pending, and sponsors said they would review them in light of the changes made to the bill Tuesday and possibly bring them up again Wednesday before the House takes its final vote on the bill.