By Larry Keane
North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper had an opportunity to end his state’s discriminatory Jim Crow-era law. Legislation to repeal the state’s requirement for citizens to obtain a pistol purchase permit from their local sheriff was passed by state lawmakers and sent to his desk for signature, in what would have ended a practice known to discriminate against African-American gun buyers. Instead, he vetoed the measure.
The move was expected, yet it is still disappointing that politicians side with gun control measures even when they prove to be racially discriminating.
It was a lost opportunity to stand up for his citizens’ Second Amendment rights and put an end to abuses of permit system that unlawfully denied North Carolinians the ability to protect themselves. NSSF backed the legislation that would have repealed the 102-year-old relic of the Jim Crow-era and brought North Carolina into the 21st Century.
Gov. Cooper vetoed N.C.’s House Bill 398, which passed both the state’s House of Representatives and Senate with overwhelming support. The legislation earned the backing of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, but Gov. Cooper’s veto put gun control politics ahead of North Carolinians’ rights. He said he’d rather be signing more gun control legislation.
“Gun permit laws reduce gun homicides and suicides and reduce the availability of guns for criminal activity,” Gov. Cooper wrote in a press statement. “At a time of rising gun violence, we cannot afford to repeal a system that works to save lives. The legislature should focus on combating gun violence instead of making it easier for guns to end up in the wrong hands.”
The issue came to the forefront when the Wake County Sheriff’s Office refused to accept handgun permit applications during COVID-19 restrictions. Individuals and groups sued Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker in federal court. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ruled the sheriff’s office must pay $26,000 in fees and damages. A similar lawsuit was also filed against Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office for slow-walking permits there, which are required by law to be issued within 14 days.
North Carolina’s pistol purchase permitting system has been abused. The recent examples of sheriffs closing off permits during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate how the sheriffs made unilateral decisions to deny firearm sales to citizens at a time when firearm sales were skyrocketing over personal safety concerns. Without the permits, most North Carolinians were barred from their ability to legally purchase firearms. Without the ability to lawfully purchase firearms, their Second Amendment rights were violated.
That’s not a new phenomenon, though. The University of North Carolina’s Law Review studied the rejection rates for pistol permits issued by county sheriffs. The findings demonstrated that the law is used to discriminate against African-Americans based on subjective criteria, not fair application of upholding God-given rights.
“As a whole, the system is largely redundant with federal law, adding cost, time, and frustration for handgun purchasers,” the study’s authors wrote. “Furthermore, the permitting system is ripe for abuse by allowing denials for subjective ‘good cause.’ This subjective criteria for denial is suspect since Black applicants are rejected at a rate near three times as high as White applicants.”
The pistol purchase permit law was enacted in 1919, at a time when the UNC Law Review noted it was intended to deny minorities the ability to possess handguns. It has remained in effect since. State senators rebuked Gov. Cooper’s veto that keeps the discriminatory practice.
“The North Carolina Senate voted to repeal the Jim Crow-era pistol permit system that the Democrats created to prevent black people from owning guns,” state Republican Sen. Chuck Edwards wrote in a statement. “But the bill will not become law because Gov. Roy Cooper and every Senate Democrat, like those legislators in 1919, voted to maintain the discriminatory gun control system that they would view as racist in any other context.”
Politics Over Policy
Gov. Cooper’s claims that the permit system is needed for public safety were also debunked by the UNC Law Review study.
“Finally, when compared to states without the permitting requirement, North Carolina’s crime rates are within a few percentage points of theirs, indicating that the permitting system is not sensible policy,” the UNC Law Study states.
There are already safeguards in place to ensure firearms sold at retail aren’t allowed to be purchased by prohibited individuals. The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is used across the country to verify that firearms sold at retail are only transferred to those in good standing with the law.
Gov. Cooper’s veto was a lost opportunity to stand up for the rights of his citizens. He chose gun control politics over good policy. His explanation that more laws are needed to restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens because of the criminal actions of those who have no respect for law is lacking. His veto only serves to keep discriminatory practices alive when they belong in the past.
Larry Keane is Senior Vice President of Government and Public Affairs and General Counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry trade association.