Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes is one of the most popular and longest serving Republican sheriffs in North Carolina. When first elected in 1994, Barnes was the first Republican to hold his office in the left-leaning county in nearly three decades. He’s had a lock on it ever since, winning re-election comfortably whether challengers come at him from the political left or right.
Along the way he’s become an influential law enforcement figure in the state, currently serving as co-chair of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association’s legislative committee. He also carries some serious weight in GOP political circles, sought after for endorsements and campaign appearances by everyone from Guilford County commissioners to Congressman Mark Walker and President Donald Trump.
But one of the keys to Barnes’ broad appeal is the way in which he’s been willing to buck party orthodoxy when he feels it’s at odds with the safety of his officers and the public. This has often put Barnes in the crosshairs of anti-gun control groups.
This week Barnes talked to NC Policy Watch about his opposition to House Bill 476, which is headed for a full vote in the N.C. House of Representatives.
The bill 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.
Barnes was one of the strongest advocates for concealed carry in the 1990s and today says the system that’s in place – whereby county sheriff’s offices vet those applying for concealed carry permits and decide whether to grant them and under what conditions – has worked well.
We asked Barnes five questions about the new bill, his views on concealed carry and what it means for Republicans to oppose the continued degradation of the state’s existing gun laws.
Sheriff Barnes, those who support this bill believe anyone who can legally carry a gun to carry a pistol should be able to carry one concealed starting at 18. You disagree. Tell us why.
There’s nothing magical about the age of 18. You don’t all of a sudden become enlightened. Just because you’re 18 doesn’t give you all the answers. I believe if you’re going to carry concealed you should have some training – whether it’s a training course, police training or military training.
You need that training, as far as how to handle a gun and when to handle a gun – when to pull it, when not to pull it, legal things that you need to know about carrying and pulling it. If you don’t have the requirement for that kind of training, a lot of people are not going to educate themselves. And that’s dangerous.
Do you consider it dangerous for both the public and law enforcement?
Every officer who’s doing his duty should be cognizant of everything around them and they are. But if you have more people carrying concealed, officers are either going to have to assume that everyone they encounter is carrying concealed, they’re going to have to take that attitude or every officer that comes up to a citizen is going to have to ask the question of them… ‘Are you armed?’
But the other part of it is, if you have someone who runs into a convenience store to rob it and you have a bunch of people carrying concealed… no one knows who else is carrying. Maybe someone who is carrying doesn’t realize an officer is already there – maybe he’s plainclothes – and they start shooting. They shoot the person committing the crime, but the officer pulls his gun and they shoot him too. It’s dangerous for everyone. Again, you don’t have the training you need to be in that situation where you’re carrying concealed.
The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association hasn’t taken an official position on this bill, the way they have with some previous bills. Why is that?
There are a lot of things in this bill – some of them are good, some of them are bad. So they haven’t opposed the bill, they just haven’t taken a position.
There are some things in this bill I support. It says if someone commits a crime with a gun, they don’t get the gun back. That’s good. It also lets sheriffs have access to mental health records without a signed release from the clerk of court. But then, it also weakens what we can do with that information, what we can take into account. If someone has PTSD – let’s say a guy went to Vietnam and he’s having problems decades later. We should be able to take that into account. That’s a very serious issue.
It sounds as though you’re saying the current concealed carry permit system and the way law enforcement use it can be improved. Does this bill – which would largely eliminate the need for it, except under certain specific conditions and for those who want reciprocity with other states – go too far?
There needs to be a system in place. The one we have now has worked pretty well. We have more than 21,000 concealed carry holders in Guilford County and in all the time we’ve been issuing these permits, I think I’ve had to take back maybe 10. And as far as the reciprocity – they’re increasing the fee for concealed carry permits by a dollar, for those who do want the permit for reciprocity with other states. But where does that dollar go? It goes to the state, not to the sheriffs’ offices that are doing the work.
There seem to be few Republican politicians speaking out against the bill. Are you at all concerned with the blowback?
Concealed carry is a sacred cow right now. And I was one of the people pushing the hardest to get concealed carry in North Carolina. I’m for it. But I think you have to have something in place to do it right.
As far as blowback — it’s not that I don’t care what people think. But I’m not going to be influenced by what they think if they’re wrong. My concern is with public safety and the safety of my officers. The right thing is to protect the public and to protect my officers.
A lot of Republicans are supporting it. There are some of the sheriffs supporting it, and I’m disappointed by that too. I don’t know if they’re influenced because some of these groups say they’ll come after them if they don’t support it – but I know where I am on it, and I’m against it.
They can come after me if they want to – they’ve done it before. But when I run, I win – and I usually win by twenty points.
We’re going to have kids – and I’m old enough to call them that – who shouldn’t be carrying guns running around carrying concealed, without the training and the education they need. I can’t support that.