A bill making it legal for most people to carry concealed handguns without a permit took a crucial step closer to becoming law Wednesday.
House Bill 746 would, with a few exceptions, remove the state’s requirement for a concealed carry permit, allowing anyone 18 or older who legally owns a gun to carry to conceal it except where expressly prohibited.
In North Carolina, those seeking a concealed carry permit from their county sheriff must now 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.
The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association has opposed changes to that system, though they have been introduced in every legislative session since Republicans became the majority in the General Assembly in 2011.
The previous bills have gone nowhere – and that looked like it would be the fate of HB 746 this year when it failed to make it out of a committee in time for “crossover,” when approved bills head from one legislative chamber to the other. But a rewritten version of the bill surfaced Tuesday evening and was heard in the Judiciary IV committee late Wednesday after a long appropriations committee session on the state budget.
Rep. Chris Millis (R-Hampstead), one of the bill’s sponsors, introduced and defended it during the committee debate.
The thrust of his argument: the bill leaves in place the need for pistol purchase permits and would simply treat concealed carry like open carry.
Millis called the bill “common sense,” using as an example someone who is openly carrying a handgun but puts on a jacket. That person is then breaking the law by concealing their weapon, Millis said.
But lawmakers opposing the bill said it was more complicated than that.
Sales through licensed gun dealers still require a federal background check, but those checks aren’t performed when purchasing guns from gun shows or for private sales. The additional background check for a concealed carry permit can be helpful in combating that loophole, the bill’s critics said.
The bill would also require that a court find someone mentally ill in order to disqualified from carrying a concealed weapon. A determination from a doctor, psychiatrist or Veterans Affairs evaluation wouldn’t be enough.
“I do recognize the second amendment,” said Rep. Deb Butler (D-Brunswick). “It’s part of our constitution and every citizen has that right. But in a rational society we also put rational limits and reasonable controls on these things.”
Rep. Mary Belk agreed, arguing for changes to the bill that were ultimately rejected by the committee’s Republican majority.
Allowing someone to be disqualified for mental health reasons short of a court judgement would slow down the process without preventing their right to bear arms, Belk said.
“We’re just making sure…it’s a stop-gap measure to have people who may have mental health issues,” Belk said. “Let’s slow down before we give someone who does have those issues a permit.”
Rep. Kelly Alexander (D-Mecklenburg) agreed, offering several amendments that would have added additional safeguards to the bill. Among them was a provision that would have raised the age for un-permitted concealed carry from 18 to 21.
Republicans on the committee voted down each of the amendments, arguing they were unnecessary.
The bill does recognize some restrictions for concealed carry. Guns would still be banned from places where alcohol is sold and consumed, from courthouses, the state capitol and the Legislative Building and Legislative Office Building of the General Assembly. But it makes exceptions for judges, prosecutors, registrars, legislators themselves and legislative employees.
Exceptions would also be made – and in some cases expanded – for some former law enforcement and corrections officers.
Representatives from the National Rifle Association and gun rights group Grassroots North Carolina were on hand to argue for the bill during public comments.
Daniel Patrick of Grassroots North Carolina said the bill is next step in a gradual evolution toward fewer gun restrictions that has been underway in the state for years.
“Any opposition at this point represents little more than an attempt to preserve power and control,” Patrick said.
Christy Clark of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America was also on hand.
She said the bill would “roll back one of North Carolina’s core public safety laws.” While it would make North Carolina the 14th state to effectively do away with concealed carry permits it would make the state only the 16th to allow teenagers to carry a concealed handgun without a permit, she said.
Becky Ceartas of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence issued a written statement in which she said he organization was “disappointed” the bill had made it out of committee.
“The concealed carry weapons permitting system ensures that 18 year olds cannot buy a gun and requires 8 hours of classroom and live fire training,” Ceartas said in the statement. “Without these classes, the public cannot be certain that a gun owner is knowledgeable of the rules and laws of carrying a hidden loaded weapon in public. In addition, 18-21 year olds commit nearly four times as many gun homicides as adults 21 and over.”
In the end, both Democrats and Republicans on the committee said it came down to a philosophical difference on the issue of handguns and whether more concealed weapons would make for a safer society.
“I am a gun owner,” said Rep. Terry Garrison (D-Granville). ” I own a couple of rifles as well. I think a person should have a right to bear arms – to have his or her own weapon. But I question the need for a civilized society in the 21st century to feel the best deterrent to violence and gun violence is to carry a weapon openly.”
“The one thing that is, to me, just so common sense is that the more vehicles you have on the road the greater the likelihood of incidents that lead to accidents,” Garrison said. “The same is true with firearms.”
Rep. Bert Jones (R-Caswell) disagreed, saying he’s proud that over his tenure in the General Assembly, they’ve continued to expand gun rights.
Violence doesn’t come from a gun, Jones said, but the human heart. Long before guns, he said, humans were visiting horrible violence on one another.
“It goes back to Cain and Abel,” Jones said. “For those of you who know your history from Genesis.”
The bill will be heard in the House Finance Committee Thursday morning at 8:30 a.m., its next step on the way to a full floor vote in the House.