By Joe Killian / N.C. Policy Watch
Two new North Carolina House bills aim to do away with permits for carrying concealed handguns and eliminate the state’s ability to regulate concealed weapons.
The moves, which have failed to get traction in previous sessions, have been denounced as dangerous by leaders in law enforcement and gun control advocates. But groups and lawmakers supporting the bill say it’s the next step in North Carolina’s recent history of gun deregulation.
Under House Bill 69 – the “Constitutional Carry Act” – any U.S. citizen 18 years or older would be able to carry a concealed handgun, unless otherwise disallowed by state or federal law.
The bill is sponsored by 13 House Republicans. Its four primary sponsors – Rep. Larry Pittman (R-Cabarrus), Rep. Michael Speciale (R-Craven), Rep. Beverly Boswell (R-Dare) and Rep. Jay Adams (R-Catawba) – either did not respond to calls and e-mails on the bill or declined to be interviewed.
Pittman did recently grant an interview to the Charlotte Observer.
“A gun is a tool,” Pittman told the Observer. “It is only as good or bad as the intentions of the person carrying it.
Concealed or open carry makes no difference, except that if we can carry concealed, criminals and terrorists have no idea which lawful citizens just might fight back. The government should not interfere with our freedom to do so.”
Pittman has failed to get similar bills passed – including one last year. This bill is more narrowly tailored than last year’s bill, which attempted to amend the state constitution on the issue.
But another bill, filed Tuesday, would do that as well.
House Bill 145 would amend the state constitution to eliminate the state’s ability to regulate the carrying of concealed weapons. That bill’s sponsor, Speciale, declined to discuss it Tuesday afternoon.
In North Carolina, carrying a concealed handgun without a permit is a Class 2 misdemeanor on first offense and a Class H felony for subsequent offenses.
Some of the state’s most prominent law enforcement officials say there’s good reason for that.
“I am very much for Second Amendment rights,” said Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes, co-chair of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association’s legislative committee. “But these are terrible ideas.”
“A gun is a tool – a powerful tool,” said Barnes. “To just put that in the hands of anyone who is 18, even if they’ve had no safety training, no proficiency, no training in what the gun laws are – that’s not going to make the public safer and it’s not going to make my officers safer.”
In North Carolina, those seeking a concealed carry permit must complete eight hours of classroom training, demonstrate familiarity with gun operation and safety and pass a test at a firing range. They also have to undergo a check that looks at any criminal convictions, pending charges or mental health problems.
If gun owners aren’t willing to show that level of respect for their own safety and that of others, Barnes said, they should think twice about carrying a concealed weapon.
With more than 600,000 concealed carry permit holders in the state, Barnes said, it’s obvious that the permitting process isn’t keeping people from obtaining a permit if they wish to do so.
“I have spoken to a lot of sheriffs about this, and I haven’t met one yet who didn’t agree,” Barnes said.
Paul Valone, President and co-founder of the gun rights group Grassroots North Carolina, said Barnes and other sheriffs are missing the point.
“The fact is, if I’m a criminal and I want to carry concealed right now, I’m going to do it anyway,” Valone said. “People are buying firearms right now without any safety education. All this process is doing is making it so that law abiding citizens have to get a government permission slip to exercise their constitutional rights.”
Valone’s group claims membership of about 20,000 people – but he their reach is much broader, through an “alert database” of about 120,000.
“That’s why whenever we tell people to light up a legislator’s office, it lights up but good,” said Valone.
Valone’s group has been working to loosen gun restrictions in the state since the 1990s. He said their success has been slow but steady.
“The naysayers claimed there would be shooting at traffic lights every time some new restriction was gone,” Valone said. “When we expanded the right to carry into parks, they claimed gang members would be shooting up parks. When we expanded it to restaurants that served alcohol they claimed drunks would be shooting people. None of that happened.”
Getting the concealed carry permit done away with completely has been a long-term goal, Valone said. Though attempts have been frustrated in the past, he said the number of states doing away with such restrictions over the last few years make it more likely that North Carolina will follow.
Just this week New Hampshire governor, Chris Sununu, signed a constitutional carry bill into law, making it the 12th U.S. state with such a law. The others are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Several other states have variations on the law that allow for the carrying of concealed weapons outside city limits or by residents of states that do have such laws, for instance.
“None of those states have had problems with it,” Valone said.
There does appear to have been a shift in public perception of concealed carry laws and their impact on safety.
A 2015 Gallup poll found that 56 percent of those polled thought more concealed handguns would make the U.S. safer – but it included a training and permitting process as part of the question.
A 2012 poll by Republican pollster Frank Luntz for the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that a vast majority of those polled – and even a majority of NRA members – favored a permitting process for concealed carry, including an age limit of 21.
Research on the issue can be difficult because laws function differently in various states, but a 2014 Stanford University study concluded that the passage of “right-to-carry” laws does correlate with an increase in violent crime.
That’s why groups like Moms Demand Action and North Carolinians Against Gun Violence oppose the recent North Carolina bills.
“We are opposed to proposals that would dismantle our state’s concealed handgun permit system and allow people with no safety training – including some dangerous people – to carry hidden, loaded handguns in public without a permit,” said Christy Clark, the state chapter leader for Moms Demand Action. “We hope the General Assembly will show the same concern for public safety they have in the past by rejecting this proposal again.”
Becky Ceartas from North Carolinians Against Gun Violence agreed.
“I think it’s unfortunate we have seen some restrictions that we had in place go away,” Ceartas said. “But I think in 2015 we saw strong opposition to these kinds of changes from grassroots organizations and people all over North Carolina and Democrats and Republicans in Raleigh came together in a bipartisan way to make sure this permitting system stayed in place, among other things.”
Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Wake), the House Minority Leader, said he anticipates that will happen again this year.
“Remember that any member can file any bill,” Jackson said. “That does not necessarily mean it has support. “Right now, I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere.”
If bills like these do begin to pick up support, Jackson said, he feels confident that having new Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in place will help to prevent them from becoming law.
“Not everyone who wants to carry a concealed gun should carry one,” Jackson said. “We have to have some training, we have to have some standards. I think that’s something most people agree with.”
About N.C. Policy Watch
N.C. Policy Watch, a project of the N.C. Justice Center, is a news and commentary outlet dedicated to informing the public — including elected officials as they debate important issues — and ultimately to improving the quality of life for all North Carolinians.
The list of specific issues tackled over the years by the Policy Watch staff is a long one and includes everything from state fiscal policy, the affordable housing crisis, health care reform, K-12 and higher education, LGBTQ and immigrant rights, government and lobbying reform to environmental protection.