RALEIGH -- A gun measure that repeals North Carolina's pistol permit application system narrowly passed a House committee Wednesday, despite opposition by Gov. Pat McCrory and the association representing sheriffs who approve or deny the permits.
The rules panel voted 14-13 in favor of the measure, which also would authorize General Assembly members and staff workers in the Legislative Building to carry legally held concealed weapons.
The bill, if approved, also would mean more people convicted of misdemeanors would no longer be prohibited from obtaining a license to carry a concealed weapon. Penalties for violating a prohibition against carrying concealed weapons on private property would decrease.
Committee Chairman Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, cast the tie-breaking vote for the measure. It next heads to the House floor for debate, likely early next week, Lewis said late Wednesday. Four Republicans voted against the legislation sponsored by GOP colleagues.
The two-hour debate focused largely on the pistol permit application system, which would be repealed in 2021 under the latest version of the bill. An earlier version had set the date for 2018.
Right now, someone who wants to buy a handgun in North Carolina either must get a concealed weapons permit or a pistol permit. Both are authorized by local sheriffs. Only the pistol permit requirement - which must include a criminal background check - would go away.
Should the repeal take effect, a national criminal check would still be required when a person wants to buy a gun from a federally licensed dealer. The bill also attempts to improve information, such as the fingerprints of defendants, that is reported to a national database in which North Carolina criminal background checks are performed.
The bill "in no way attempts to remove background checks from people attempting to obtain handguns," said a chief bill sponsor, Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, R-Mecklenburg. "On the contrary, it is attempting to strengthen those background checks."
But as a result of the bill, private sales or transfers of handguns between individuals would no longer require the recipient to obtain the pistol permit, according to advocates on both sides. It's unclear how many such transactions occur annually.
Paul Valone with the gun-rights group Grass Roots North Carolina said such transactions are a small percentage of overall gun sales. Many people selling guns ignore the permit requirement, Valone added, and the sheriff's review isn't very useful because it can occur five years before a sale.
The "purchase permit system is archaic and arbitrary and we prefer that it disappear altogether," Valone told the committee, saying that sheriffs in some counties place unreasonable requirements upon pistol purchase applicants.
Gun-control advocates say pistol permits issued by sheriffs address those private sales not covered in the federal background check system.
"It's essential that we keep background checks for unlicensed sellers because they catch criminals and save lives," said Becky Ceartas, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence. She cited a study that found the vast majority of prisoners who had obtained weapons said they got them from unlicensed sellers.
The North Carolina Sheriffs Association supports "maintaining the pistol purchase permit" and opposes its repeal, group lobbyist Doug Miskew told committee members.
Ryan Minto, representing McCrory on legislative matters, told lawmakers the governor opposes the permit repeal and "he cannot support the bill in its current form."
Some lawmakers are worried giving General Assembly members and staff the ability to carry weapons could lead to violence. Current legislative rules prohibit deadly weapons within the complex. State law allows judges, magistrates and clerks of court with concealed weapons permits to carry their concealed handguns at work.
"If my colleagues are packing I want to know," said Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg. "When you start saying that we ... as elected officials can come to work and staff can come to work carrying a loaded weapon, I think it's a recipe for disaster."
The legislature has an armed police force. But Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, another bill sponsor, said expanding the ability carry of concealed weapons would deter "some individuals from doing something stupid."
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