Hard Choices

WRAL examines gun control, access in North Carolina

Posted January 23, 2013 8:45 p.m. EST
Updated January 26, 2013 8:23 p.m. EST

**Editor's Note: WRAL News initially reported, incorrectly, that private handgun sales must be transacted through a federally licensed dealer. We were told by those in the industry that using a licensed dealer as a broker was a good practice, but it is not required by law. 

President Barack Obama recently called for new gun laws and signed 23 executive orders related to gun violence.

Among Obama’s executive orders is a directive for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence and the best ways to reduce it. Another makes sure every school has a comprehensive emergency management plan.

Other orders make it easier to get mental health treatment, ensure that mental health is covered by health insurance plans, instruct the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to test the effectiveness of gun locks and safes and one launches a national awareness campaign about guns.

“While there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there’s even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to do that,” Obama said.

In North Carolina, those who want to buy an military-style semi-automatic rifle can do so without going through a criminal background check. It’s as easy as going to a website that sells firearms and contacting the seller.

A representative of armslist.com told WRAL’s Debra Morgan that she could buy an AK-47 for $1,300 and offered to throw in seven magazines with 540 rounds of hollow-point ammunition. No permit and no background check were needed, although the seller asked Morgan to show ID to close the deal.

ATF: 'Gun show loophole' a problem in NC

Earl Woodham, spokesman for the Charlotte division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, says there is not a federal, criminal background check required for the personal purchase of a long gun or a handgun.

Thousands of long guns or rifles and handguns are being sold by individuals on websites and in other classified ads. One site WRAL News found was selling rifles with large-capacity magazines and pistols, such as a 9mm semi-automatic that has a 30-round magazine.

People selling handguns online are supposed to ask the buyer for a pistol purchase permit or a concealed handgun permit to show they've passed a background check. It is also wise to go to a federally licensed firearms dealer to handle the transaction, but that is not required by law. (**See Editor's Note, above)

Gun shows create another opportunity to buy guns without a background check.

"That alone creates an underlying problem of people who are not lawfully or legally allowed to have a firearm, to include some violent criminals, a methodology in which to obtain a firearm,” Woodham said.

The ATF says the so-called "gun show loophole" is a problem in North Carolina.

There are laws in the state designed to keep guns out of the wrong hands. To buy a handgun in North Carolina, the buyer must get a pistol purchase permit at his or her local sheriff's office, fill out a simple one-page form and get in line. Then, present the form with a driver's license or another official photo ID to prove the buyer is at least 21 and a resident of both North Carolina and the county where he or she is applying for the permit.

"If you are qualified, then we'll get you a pistol permit,” said Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison. Qualifying means passing a background check, which is a check of court, DMV and other records. “Anything that we can to see what this person has on his or her record,” Harrison said.

How to get a gun permit in NC

North Carolinians will be denied a permit if they:

  • Are a felon, a fugitive, have criminal charges pending or a substantial criminal record
  • Have a history of drug addiction
  • Have been declared mentally incompetent or have been committed to a mental institution
  • Have been convicted of domestic violence or are under a domestic violence protective order
  • Have a suspended driver's license
  • Have been dishonorably discharged from the military
  • Are an illegal alien or have renounced their citizenship.

To get a permit to carry a concealed handgun, the process is similar, only people have to pass a training course, be fingerprinted and sign a waiver that allows the release of any mental health records, something that's not required with an ordinary pistol purchase permit.

No permit is required to buy a rifle but if a person buys a rifle from a federally licensed firearms dealer he or she will need to pass a background check or present a pistol permit. That does not include a mental health history.

The ATF says so-called "straw sales" of guns are another detour around background checks.

"Where people go into a gun dealer, they buy a gun, which on its face is lawful, they turn around and sell them on the street immediately to the people who cannot own them or they were paid to go in and do that process to begin with,” Woodham said.

Then, there are guns stolen in break-ins of homes, cars and gun stores. The ATF says North Carolina is the No. 1 state in the nation for gun store break-ins. Many of those guns end up out of state, while guns stolen in homes and car burglaries tend to stay in the state. Most of the stolen guns end up being sold person to person in an unregulated black market.

"Knowingly possessing a stolen firearm in this country is a federal felony,” Woodham said.

More than 1,600 people were charged with possession of a stolen firearm in North Carolina in 2011.

In a WRAL Documentary in June 2011, WRAL anchor David Crabtree asked a young gang member about the availability of such guns.

"Somebody came to you and wanted a gun, how long would it take you to get them a gun?" Crabtree asked.

"I mean, guns are everywhere,” the gang member said.

“A day?" Crabtree asked.

"Probably even less, about 30 minutes,” the gang member said.

Gun shop owner: People buying rifles for fear they'll be banned

No law will prevent every illegal gun sale, whether it's between people on the street, on the Internet or at gun shows. Obama is calling for universal background checks in his executive order. Some say common sense laws can prevent many illegal gun sales and help keep at least some guns out of the wrong hands.

Not everyone sees more laws as the answer. Mike Tilley is the owner of Personal Defense & Handgun Safety Center Inc. in Raleigh, which includes a firearms shop, range and school.

“I grew up with firearms as a young boy hunting in the woods for squirrels and target shooting,” Tilley said.

He later started shooting competitively. His son, Chris, took after him and is a two-time gold medalist representing the U.S. in international target shooting competitions. Tilley says many people get a rush from firing a gun.

"I think there's a rush, and I think most everyone who shoots one gets a rush from it. It's the ultimate remote control device. You're setting off an explosion and precisely controlling a projectile to go to a target, and I think there's a little bit of power that comes with that,” Tilley said.

Tilley allowed Crabtree to feel a little of that rush of power, by letting him fire a semi-automatic rifle with a 25-round magazine.

"It's loaded, a round is loaded. I'm going to lay it down. You can pick it up, take it off safe, finger off the trigger until you're ready to pull the trigger," Tilley instructed Crabtree.

Crabtree hit his target with every shot on his first try and said he was amazed at how easily the gun fired.

“Good shot,” Tilley said. “It was kind of a rush, wasn’t it?”

Crabtree admitted that it was. “I can see why people enjoy target practice," he said.

Tilley sells semi-automatic rifles with large capacity magazines and has sold out of the AR-15, one of the most popular types. People have been buying them up for fear they will be banned.

“They're used for hunting, they're used for competition, they’re used for home defense,” Tilley said.

The handguns he sells are also popular for home defense.

"The second amendment allows us the right to keep and bear arms for personal protection and even protection against tyranny,” he said.

NC anti-gun violence group: 'They're killing our babies'

As an alternative to more gun restrictions, the National Rifle Association is proposing armed security in U.S. public schools.

Gail Neely, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, says her group supports current proposals to place more restrictions on assault-style rifles and on gun sales, not armed guards.

"Is that a good learning environment for our children? Do we want them to have to walk past someone with an M-16 when they go into school to learn?” Neely asked.

“I don't think (gun restrictions are) an infringement on anybody's second amendment rights. They can still have a gun in their homes to protect themselves if they need it. They can still do the target practicing. They can still hunt,” she added.

Neely says there's no need for anyone to be able to buy a rifle with a high-capacity magazine capable of killing dozens of people very quickly.

"They're on our streets now. They're killing our babies, and that's not acceptable,” she said.

Tilley says he and other responsible gun owners are upset about the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre and other deadly shootings, too, but he says more restrictions on firearms aren't the answer.

"The gun is the quick, easy target,” he said. “These are all tragedies and we all look for reasons to fix it, and we're a fix-it society and we want to find something we can put our finger on and say, ‘This is the problem, let's fix it.’ Unfortunately, many laws were broken in all of these situations and more laws would have only made law-abiding citizens jump through more hoops, and it really doesn't change anything."

The NRA has come under close scrutiny after the shootings in Newtown. The organization's president David Keene said the focus shouldn't be on guns. It should be on making schools safer.

Duke professor: Background checks have 'very strong popular support'

To get more perspective on the laws Obama is proposing, WRAL News spoke with Duke University professor Philip Cook. He has written for The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and authored a book, "Gun Violence: The Real Costs." He focuses extensively on the U.S. trying to come to grips with gun control issues.

“I think that the one bold proposal (Obama made) that has some chance is the universal background check, simply because that has very strong popular support right now,” Cook said. “The public sees the good sense of doing that, and that it is just remotely possible that Congress will come in line and support the idea.”

“I think it could make a difference, with respect to the rampage shootings,” Cook added. “A measure that limits the distribution of large capacity magazines is very much targeted on just the problem that brought us here, which is the terribly tragic rampage shootings. The question is how to design regulation that would be effective. Our old assault weapons ban in 1994 probably was not particularly effective.”

If Congress were to pass a limit on magazines, Cook said he believes the government should offer a buy-back to remove existing magazines from the market. To be clear, he said, the idea is in no way to take away or buy back anyone's firearms, only to buy from owners, the large magazines.



This story is part of WRAL's prime time special "Soft Targets, Hard Choices." We welcome your comments and questions. Send email to hardchoices@wral.com or use #hardchoices on Twitter.