After swiftly expanding gun-rights laws during the first few years that Republicans took control of the state legislature, the charge to loosen firearms restrictions has slowed – until now.
The state House passed a bill this month that pits gun owners against each other. It would nearly eliminate concealed handgun permits and the training that goes with them, and would set the minimum age at 18 to carry a concealed gun. Under current law, people 21 and older can apply for a permit to carry a concealed gun, and anyone 18 or older can carry a handgun openly.
The bill’s sudden movement was surprising, considering three similar bills had been dormant since they were filed in February, and the legislators pushing the bills are the most conservative Republicans in the legislature, who are not always in step with the rest of the House GOP caucus or its leaders.
What has given this gun bill momentum — besides the persistent backing of the statewide gun-rights Grass Roots N.C. — is advocacy by the National Rifle Association. Promoting permitless carry — also referred to as constitutional carry — laws has become a top priority of the NRA across the country.
Twelve states now have permitless carry laws. Eight of those states enacted the laws in the past two years. At least three more are considering it.
A rapidly increasing number of North Carolinians have gone through the training and background checks required to qualify for permits: currently more than 600,000.
The argument for permitless carry is the same in North Carolina as it has been in other states: that it protects law-abiding citizens who don’t want to break the law simply by putting a coat or sweater over a legal, openly holstered handgun, carried for self-defense.
“Law-abiding citizens in North Carolina can already open carry a handgun without a permit,” NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said in an emailed statement. “This legislation simply recognizes that it is often more convenient to carry discretely. More Americans than ever are choosing to exercise their Second Amendment right to self-protection and the NRA wants to ensure they can do so in a manner that is most convenient to them.”
Gun-control advocates are chasing the NRA around the country to counter gains the formidable organization might make with state legislatures.
“We watch them very closely, that’s what we do,” Peter Ambler, executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions, said in a recent interview.
“What’s most important is that permitless carry does not become law,” Ambler said. “... You don’t want folks carrying around an incredibly dangerous consumer product like a firearm without knowing how to use it. That’s not only common sense but a part of the ethos of responsibility in this country that’s accompanied the traditions of gun ownership, that unfortunately the gun lobby is getting away from.”
The gun-control group was formed after U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head by a man who also shot 12 others, killing six, in Arizona in 2011. The organization fought a successful battle in North Carolina in 2015 against efforts to allow people to buy a handgun without a purchase permit from county sheriffs, who check applicants’ backgrounds.
When Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011, gun rights were among the controversial social issues they tackled.
The legislature expanded the self-defense “castle doctrine” to cover cars and workplaces, not just homes. Permitted concealed handguns were allowed in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol; district attorneys and administrative law judges can bring them into courtrooms; and they can be brought onto school grounds if secured out of sight in a vehicle.
Holders of concealed weapons permits can also bring them into public parks and greenways.
A number of Republican House members started pushing for a permitless carry law two years ago, according to former Rep. Gary Pendleton, a Raleigh Republican.
Pendleton describes himself as a hunter, gun collector and 43-year member of the NRA. But he strongly supports the current permitting system because it ensures people carrying concealed handguns are trained and their backgrounds checked out, which protects the public.
“I’m in favor of that,” Pendleton said Monday. “I don’t want to make it easier for criminals to conceal pistols.”
Concealed permit holders have flourished in North Carolina, far outpacing the state’s population growth. The state began issuing them in 1995. In 2000, there were 46,225 permits. As of last week there were 606,377, according to the State Bureau of Investigation. The state’s population, meanwhile, grew from 8 million in 2000 to 10.2 million now.
Across the state, more than 152,000 concealed handgun permits were issued or renewed in 2016. More than 8,000 of them were in Mecklenburg County and more than 11,000 in Wake County.
Like Pendleton, many of those who have gone through the application process, which includes paying for eight hours of training and a background check, want the restrictions to remain in place. David Shimberg of Charlotte said he has a concealed-carry permit and “vehemently” disagrees with the bill.
“The right to carry a handgun is a privilege and double-edged sword which can both lead to self protection or irresponsible or illegal use by individuals without the maturity, training or inclination to carry a firearm safely and lawfully,” Shimberg said in an email.
Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican from Albemarle who is one of the bill’s sponsors, says he recognizes that some people have concerns about the bill, but he says voters back home in his district support it.
“It’s expanding gun rights in North Carolina,” Burr said Tuesday. “They tend to support any legislation doing that. Obviously, there are some that say it goes too far; there are others who say it doesn’t go far enough.”
Burr’s constituents also think they shouldn’t be considered criminals if they put on a raincoat over their openly carried handgun, he said. He said while the bill would eliminate the need for most concealed-carry training, those who buy handguns would still have to go through background checks.
Across the country
Twenty-two states have considered allowing permitless concealed handguns this year, with New Hampshire and North Dakota passing laws within the past few months. Virginia, South Carolina and Wisconsin legislatures are currently considering it. Alabama’s House failed to approve a permitless carry bill earlier this year after the Senate approved it.
An NRA study in three states that have had permitless carry long enough to measure meaningfully — Wyoming, Arizona and Alaska — found no increase in the number of handgun homicides after the laws were eased.
Arizona has had a permitless carry law since 2010. Already a state with relaxed gun laws, Arizona has not seen much fallout from the change.
But Dan Furbee of Mesa, a retired police officer who has been a firearms instructor for 38 years, says the law hit businesses that offer gun safety classes hard.
“It’s hit a lot of people like myself, giving people good information, making sure they comply with state standards. It’s impacted us who teach a great deal,” Furbee said. “Any type of professional understands the value of training. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to get that.”
In general, states are imposing fewer limits on firearms while increasing protections for the gun industry, according to a new study from Boston University. The study also found the rate of homicides involving firearms rose from 2014 to 2015 in every state but West Virginia, and the country had the largest annual increase in 35 years.
In North Carolina
Republican House members Larry Pittman of Concord, Michael Speciale of New Bern and Chris Millis of Hampstead filed bills rolling back concealed carry permit requirements early in the session this year. The bills were ignored, but the legislators worked together with the NRA to cobble together a more sweeping bill.
House Bill 746, sponsored by Pittman, Speciale, Millis and Burr, would make it legal for anyone not otherwise prohibited to carry a concealed weapon in most public places without needing a permit. The permits would still be available for those who travel to other states that have agreements with North Carolina in which each state honors the other’s concealed carry permits. And they would be available for use in places where open-carry is not allowed but permitted concealed-carry is.
North Carolina prohibits concealed weapons in some areas even with a permit: at demonstrations or picket lines, courthouses, legislative buildings, state or federal offices, public schools’ grounds (except secured in vehicles) and anywhere it is posted as prohibited.
HB 746 also resurrected the effort to do away with handgun purchase permits, but that provision was eventually stripped from the bill.
The NRA’s political action committee has spent more than $200,000 to support North Carolina Republican politicians since 2011, mostly the $160,000 to help Gov. Pat McCrory and attorney general candidate Buck Newton just before both lost in the general election in November. The NRA’s lobbying arm spent another $13,000 on direct-marketing phone calls for McCrory and Newton. Senate leader Phil Berger received $5,000 and House Speaker Tim Moore $2,500 since 2011.
As HB 746 began advancing earlier this month, Americans for Responsible Solutions, the state chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and the related Everytown for Gun Safety responded quickly with polls showing widespread opposition to permitless carry in North Carolina, and launched a digital ad campaign.
Meanwhile, Grass Roots N.C. reported emailing 120,000 gun-owning voters to contact their legislators, and also posted contact information including home addresses for lobbyists representing gun-control organizations. The two pro-gun groups don’t always work together.
“Frankly, I doubt it really has much to do with the NRA,” Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots N.C., said Tuesday of the bill’s momentum. “They’re sort of Johnny-come-latelys on this. What it has to do with is we worked with the House long and hard to get the bill moving.”
Pressure from Grass Roots N.C. and the NRA was enough to move the bill forward.
Valone in May posted a letter on his organization’s website saying it was disappointed that Moore, a Republican from Kings Mountain, had not allowed HB 746 to advance despite Moore’s past support for gun legislation.
“So please tell me, Mr. Speaker, why promises made to gun voters to move the legislation (which they so desperately need) remain unfulfilled,” Valone wrote. “Ugly rumors conjecture that North Carolina Republicans, secure in their super-majorities after redistricting and interested in sitting back to enjoy the spoils of power, now feel they are no longer responsible to the voters who sent them to Raleigh to defend our rights. I pray those rumors are wrong.”
In June, the bill was sent to committees and then to the full House, where it passed despite opposition from eight Republicans and all of the Democrats. The House speaker does not usually vote, and Moore did not on this bill. It passed without enough votes to sustain a veto, which Gov. Roy Cooper has suggested he would use if it comes to his desk.
Now the gun groups and bill sponsors are trying to make their case in the Senate, and trying to persuade at least seven of those eight Republicans to override a veto from Cooper if it comes to that, Pittman wrote on his Facebook page. Pittman says he thinks Moore would cast a vote to override if it came to that.
On Monday, Grass Roots N.C. issued an alert saying HB 746 has to clear the Senate this week or there won’t be enough time left in the session to vote on it. The organization provides on its website a letter that supporters could send to key lawmakers, along with their contact information.
Sen. Bill Rabon, the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said last week that a decision on whether to vote on this and other firearm bills hasn’t been made yet.
“We’ll assign some folks to look at the gun bills and see what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do,” he said.
News researcher David Raynor and staff writer Colin Campbell contributed