New bill takes aim at N.C. pistol purchase permit law

Senate Bill 40, or the Pistol Purchase Permit Repeal, would do away with the system some say is duplicative — and others say saves lives.
Published: Jan. 31, 2023 at 2:31 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - State lawmakers have their sights set on a law that’s been on the books in North Carolina since 1919 that requires a local sheriff’s permission and permit before a North Carolinian can legally buy a handgun. Senate Bill 40, or the Pistol Purchase Permit Repeal, would do away with the system some say is duplicative — and others say saves lives.

“It is unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation in this State to sell, give away, or transfer, or to purchase or receive, at any place within this State from any other place within or without the State any pistol unless: (i) a license or permit is first obtained under this Article by the purchaser or receiver from the sheriff of the county in which the purchaser or receiver resides,” General Statute 14-402, the current law, reads.

The pistol purchase permit gives the local sheriff discretion and the authority to decide who can or can’t buy a pistol; Paul Valone, president of Grassroots N.C., believes the law is antiquated and should be repealed.

“It’s a leftover Jim Crow law from 1919 because it allows the sheriff to deny the purchase of a handgun to anyone he deems subjectively to be of not good moral character, whatever that needs. In 1919, it meant that you were a minority, and he would deny you,” he said. “Now, it’s used quite arbitrarily to deny people purchase permits for a variety of reasons.”

The ‘good moral character’ clause in the law is somewhat subjective. Although the law explains what criteria should be used to determine whether a person should be allowed to buy a handgun.

“For purposes of determining an applicant’s good moral character to receive a permit, the sheriff shall only consider an applicant’s conduct and criminal history for the five-year period immediately preceding the date of the application,” the law reads.

Not everyone agrees that doing away with the century-old system is a good idea.

Becky Ceartas is the Executive Director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence and says the pistol purchase permit is crucial to preventing gun violence.

“This system is so important because our federal background check system only applies if you’re buying a gun from a federally licensed dealer. This means if you’re a domestic violence abuser, minor, somebody’s experiencing a mental health crisis, a convicted felon, you can go to a gun show or online and buy a gun, no questions asked,” Ceartas said.

The ability to sell a gun online, at a gun show, or from another individual without a license, and without the need to run a background check is something permitted under federal law — but there is more nuance than that.

“As a general rule, you will need a license if you repetitively buy and sell firearms with the principal motive of making a profit. In contrast, if you only make occasional sales of firearms from your personal collection, you do not need to be licensed,” according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

This exception to federal background checks doesn’t mean that everyone at a gun show or selling a firearm online is exempt from running a background check or obtaining a federal permit to sell firearms. Instead, it excludes things like person-to-person sales when the seller isn’t operating a firearms business.

With the pistol purchase permit requirement even if you want to buy a pistol from a friend, or are gifting it to a family member, you need the sheriff’s approval. Ceartas believes the data from other states that have enacted purchase permit laws speak volumes.

“We see that in Connecticut when they enacted 10 years after they enacted their permit to purchase law, they saw their gun homicide rate go down by 28%, and their suicide rate go down by 33%,” she said.

Valone, along with Eddie Caldwell, the Executive Vice President and Executive Director of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association says there’s a flaw to the argument.

“There have been studies done a survey of felons and firearms of prison inmates. What they determined was that the vast majority of these criminals got their firearms on the street or were stolen … they were not purchased legally,” Valone said.

Gun control laws spark strong feelings from both parties, but there are some things that many people agree on.

Citing a poll from WRAL in Raleigh, Ceartas said the majority of people polled from both sides of the aisle support a background check for all gun sales.

“Polling found that more than eight out of 10 conservatives, gun owners and Republicans favor background check for all gun sales, including gun shows are online, which again, is what our pistol purchase permit system does,” she said.

Unless federal law changes and background checks are required for all gun sales, repealing the purchase permit requirement would allow person-to-person gun sales.

There’s another problem Valone has with the system, and that is the fact that a pistol purchase permit is valid for five years.

“As it stands right now. I can get a pistol purchase permit that’s good for five years. Then I can go out and commit a crime which would disqualify me from using the permits from buying a handgun. And I can then use that purchase permit, even though I’m not qualified to bypass the computerized background check system and get a handgun,” he said.

Valone and Caldwell said over the years the federal background check system required by law for all firearms dealers has improved. Data like mental health records and other issues that might prevent someone from owning a firearm have been included and are making the state law duplicative.

“We have improved our reporting to the computerized national instant background check system by adding a lot of mental health data that previously was not there. And so they [lawmakers] decided that the system was redundant, and frankly, could be eliminated,” Valone said.

Ceartas believes the data from other states that took similar actions highlight her concerns about repealing the law.

“In Missouri, we saw the disastrous consequences when they repealed their permit purchase law. They saw their gun homicide rate spiked by 47%. And their suicide rate go up by 24%. So the data speaks clearly on how these permit purchase laws save lives,” she said.

The bill is still in its infancy in the General Assembly and will take time to move through both chambers and their committees, but Valone said he thinks the support for the bill is there.

“I feel fairly confident that the time for repeal of the pistol purchase permit has come. We had overwhelming support for it in the past. We’ve actually passed it twice. We didn’t quite have the number of votes to override Cooper’s veto, of course, but we did actually have a number of Democrats that voted for the purchase permit repeal,” he said.