NC House votes to repeal state pistol purchase permit system

Proponents say federal background checks will suffice, but critics fear that a loophole for private sales will lead to a spike in murders and suicides 

The North Carolina state House of Representatives okayed a bill (HB 398) that would do away with the state’s pistol purchase permit system. The proposal would repeal current statutory provisions that include a ban on selling certain firearms without a permit, requirements for background checks (including mental health records), and other laws regarding the administration of permit issuance and related record keeping. The measure was approved by a vote of 69-48 Wednesday and referred to Senate Rules Thursday.

The elimination of the pistol purchase permit system does not impact the state’s concealed carry permit system nor do away with the need for North Carolinians to go through the federally-run computer background check when making a purchase at a licensed gun store.

Sheriffs across North Carolina have overseen the issuance of such permits for several decades. In Wednesday’s debate, however, Rep. Jay Adams, R-Catawaba, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said that some urban county sheriff’s offices are overloaded with applications.

Proponents of the bill also noted that numerous lawsuits are filed each year against county sheriffs over the denial of handgun permits and that there’s no state permit required for qualified residents to buy rifles. Instead, they noted, sellers run background checks on individuals who wish to buy rifles through a federal system.

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was established by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1998 and operated by the FBI.

The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association once opposed similar bills in previous sessions. Earlier this year, though, the organization reversed its stance. WRAL reported that the organization said the pistol permit system is outdated and redundant to NICS. The duplication claim was echoed by Adams in a statement after the debate. However, that stands in stark contrast to what the law and research say.

In fact, the pistol purchase permit acts to complement the NICS check. After obtaining a pistol purchase permit, a person does not need to go through the dealer check before purchasing a handgun or multiple long guns in one sale. However, an individual still needs a permit to buy from a licensed seller even though a NICS check is done. A NICS report shows that about 30,000 retailer checks for handguns were completed in North Carolina in 2020, whereas more than 500,000 handgun permit checks were conducted by sheriffs. It’s likely that in most cases, buyers got their pistol purchase permit from sheriffs without being screened a second time by sellers, just as the state law intended.

The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association guide on the state’s firearms law notes that besides federally-licensed dealers, the permit should be obtained for sales from private transfers, sporting good stores and inheritance. The Brady Law, however, is narrower in focus when it comes to the NICS — it only regulates federally licensed sellers and not private citizens.

“The single largest gap in the federal background check requirement is that unlicensed, private sellers are not required to conduct background checks,” Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence concluded. The organization praised the 22 states that have their own permits and alternatives to NICS for closing these loopholes. That ensures everyone undergoes checks on criminal and domestic abuse history, regardless of where they are to obtain these weapons, the group said.

“States that have pistol purchasing permits have 10% fewer incidents of shootings and homicides because there is that safeguard,” Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, objected. She said she’s concerned that NICS, not a real-time search tool, may not offer assurance that those who can’t lawfully obtain guns are prevented from the sales. She touted the state permit system’s comprehensiveness in including court records, domestic violence and involuntary commitment records. Researchers have identified flaws of NICS, including incomplete records and the Charleston loophole, where buyers can get their hands on guns if the FBI fails to produce a result within three days even if they ultimately fail the background checks.

A national study by the RAND Corporation shows that background checks reduce violent crimes.

In an op-ed in Raleigh’s News & Observer, president of gun rights group Grass Roots North Carolina Paul Valone wrote that the permit system originated from a Jim Crow-era law from 1919, which “once facilitated denial of handguns to blacks under its vague ‘good moral character’ requirement.” However, research suggests that the national NICS is not without racial biases and discrepancies.

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