ABC11 360: Gun laws in the United States and in North Carolina

Monday, August 5, 2019
Separating fact from fiction in gun debate
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Separating fact from fiction in gun debate

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Like the Constitution itself, the laws governing firearms are a tug of war between the feds and the states.

Gun control, meanwhile, is proving to be an almost impossible balance between what is emotional and what is practical.

The recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, are again provoking heated and intense debate about firearms in the United States, with advocates for and against stricter regulations taking aim at lawmakers both in state capitals and on Capitol Hill.

In this ABC11 360 report, we're bringing you a well-rounded recap of this critical issue: what it is, what it means, why it matters and what the major stakeholders have to say, so you can make up your own mind and come to your own conclusion with all of the facts.

Firearms in the United States

Part of the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Out of those 27 words have emanated movements that ironically agree on the fact that the firearms in the U.S. are uniquely American; depending on the perspective, the Second Amendment is either the greatest preservation of personal liberty or the greatest threat against a safe community.

According to the Pew Research Center, 30 percent of American adults own guns, while 72 percent of adults have fired a gun. The top three reasons cited as reasons for owning guns is protection, hunting, and sport shooting.

Firearms is not among the top 10 causes of death in the United States, but the Centers for Disease Control counted 39,733 people killed by guns in 2017, the latest data available (by comparison, drug overdoses killed more than 70,000).

In North Carolina, guns accounted for 1,430 deaths in 2017.

Firearms are typically divided into two categories: handguns (including pistols) and long guns (rifles and shotguns). According to the FBI, the number of murders committed by handguns (7,032) is 10 times greater than the number of murders by long guns (667).

Federal background checks

Though the rigidity of gun laws varies by state, U.S. federal regulations provide several base requirements and restrictions on gun sales. That starts with a mandated background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

NICS, headquartered in West Virginia, was created through the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 and launched by the FBI on Nov. 30, 1998. It is used by all federally licensed gun stores (not gun shows) to instantly determine whether a prospective buyer is eligible to buy firearms.

Before ringing up the sale, cashiers call in a check to the FBI or to other designated agencies to ensure that each customer does not have a criminal record or isn't otherwise ineligible to make a purchase. More than 230 million such checks have been made, leading to more than 1.3 million denials.

The federally prohibiting criteria are as follows:

  • A person who has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year or any state offense classified by the state as a misdemeanor and is punishable by a term of imprisonment of more than two years.
  • Persons who are fugitives from justice.
  • An unlawful user and/or an addict of any controlled substance; for example, a person convicted for the use or possession of a controlled substance within the past year; or a person with multiple arrests for the use or possession of a controlled substance within the past five years with the most recent arrest occurring within the past year; or a person found through a drug test to use a controlled substance unlawfully, provided the test was administered within the past year.
  • A person adjudicated mental defective or involuntarily committed to a mental institution or incompetent to handle own affairs, including dispositions to criminal charges of found not guilty by reason of insanity or found incompetent to stand trial.
  • A person who, being an alien, is illegally or unlawfully in the United States.
  • A person who, being an alien except as provided in subsection (y) (2), has been admitted to the United States under a non-immigrant visa.
  • A person dishonorably discharged from the United States Armed Forces.
  • A person who has renounced his/her United States citizenship.
  • The subject of a protective order issued after a hearing in which the respondent had notice that restrains them from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such partner. This does not include ex parte orders.
  • A person convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime which includes the use or attempted use of physical force or threatened use of a deadly weapon and the defendant was the spouse, former spouse, parent, guardian of the victim, by a person with whom the victim shares a child in common, by a person who is cohabiting with or has cohabited in the past with the victim as a spouse, parent, guardian or similar situation to a spouse, parent or guardian of the victim.
  • A person who is under indictment or information for a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.

North Carolina's laws get tough on handguns

With handguns being traditionally perceived as the greatest threat, North Carolina lawmakers have beefed up regulations on the purchase of handguns.

Generally, any North Carolinian wanting to buy a pistol must first visit the sheriff of the county of residence to obtain a permit. The applicant will have to pay for and fill out an application and pass a background and mental health check. The prospective buyer will then have to wait for the sheriff's office to approve that permit in a process that could take days to weeks.

The Tar Heel State's regulations on the purchase of handguns go beyond federal requirements in another significant way: purchasers generally must obtain a permit to buy a pistol from an online merchant or gun show vendor.

Rifles, shotguns and military-style weapons

Owning automatic rifles, which continuously fire until the trigger is released, is generally restricted per federal law. The same applies to suppressors, short-barreled shotguns and short-barreled rifles.

Unlike its treatment of handguns, though, North Carolina statutes do not apply stricter regulations on long guns, other than requiring the NICS federal background check. That includes the sales of the AR-15 and AK-47, weapons commonly used in past mass shootings.

That means anyone starting at the age of 18 can legally buy those firearms and walk out the store the same day - no trip to the sheriff's office necessary.

It's in this area where gun-control advocates see the most room for improvement, up to and including a full ban on military-style weapons.

Gun control proposals

Both Congress and the North Carolina General Assembly have had a series of bills filed proposing new laws related to gun control.

In Washington, the group Moms Demand Action is urging the Senate to pass a law expanding background checks to gun sales online and at gun shows. According to the group, "half of Americans live in states where a convicted felon, domestic abuser, or fugitive can purchase a gun from an unlicensed seller they meet at a gun show or online and avoid a background check. Updating our background check system to close this dangerous loophole and requiring background checks on all gun sales is critical for public safety."

In Raleigh, Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake County) filed legislation proposing regulations on securing firearms in vehicles and imposing tough penalties on violators.

Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro) has also filed bills to require registration for long guns and to require purchase permits for long guns as well.

Opponents of the measures, including the National Rifle Association, are adamant that such measures would prove ineffective and instead violate the rights of law-abiding gun owners, including those who enjoy hunting and sport shooting.

Rep. Richard Hudson (R-North Carolina), a leading conservative voice on guns, has charged "Instead of working on common-sense solutions that can actually help prevent tragedies -- like supporting local law enforcement, ensuring laws and protocols are followed to spot warning signs and improving mental health care -- Democrats are targeting law-abiding gun owners. I will continue to stand up against these attempts to restrict our Second Amendment rights."