RALEIGH, N.C. -- House Republicans in North Carolina voted Wednesday to toss out a longstanding requirement that handgun buyers first obtain a permit from their county sheriff, disregarding Democrats' concerns that it could create a dangerous loophole.
Republicans approved the measure 67-48 in a party-line vote, with four Republicans and one Democrat absent. The GOP currently holds a 71-49 majority in the chamber - one seat short of a veto-proof supermajority. It now heads to the Senate, which passed a competing firearms package last week.
Under the bill, county sheriffs would no longer be required to perform evaluations of an applicant's character and mental wellness and ensure that the gun will be used lawfully.
Supporters of the previously vetoed proposal say the requirement is no longer necessary in light of substantial updates to the national background check system that digitized decades of mental health records. Those who purchase their pistols from a gun store would still be subject to a mandatory national background check, and concealed weapons permits would still be required.
"It ensures Second Amendment rights are not infringed by a subjective process and prevent undue delays for lawful purchases of firearms," said Rep. Allen Chesser, a Nash County Republican and one of the bill's primary sponsors.
But Democrats raised alarms that the repeal would create a loophole that could allow criminals or people with mental illnesses to more easily obtain weapons. Background checks are not mandatory for private gun sales between two individuals, which only require buyers to obtain a sheriff-issued permit, or face a misdemeanor charge.
"We currently have something in place that I will say does save lives," Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham County Democrat, said during floor debate. "Let's not repeal it and take off that layer of protection."
Republican Rep. Keith Kidwell of Beaufort County responded that "criminals don't get background checks before they buy a gun."
While Republicans touted the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association's support for the bill during floor debate, several Democrats said their local sheriff opposed it.
Rep. Michael Wray of Northampton County, the sole Democratic co-sponsor, said he voted against it after talking to a sheriff in his district who said he wasn't comfortable with the bill and preferred he not vote for it.
The Senate last week approved competing legislation that grouped the pistol purchase permit repeal with another previously vetoed measure to allow more people to carry concealed firearms while attending religious services at locations where private or charter schools also meet.
A standalone proposal for the houses of worship measure passed the House last week with the support of six Democrats, signaling a potential override of any veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who blocked an identical bill in 2021, if the General Assembly moves forward with the House bill.
Also Wednesday, the House passed a bipartisan proposal - included in the Senate package - to create and fund a two-year education campaign on the safe storage of firearms, which would distribute free gun locks.
House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters after the vote he certainly thinks "some conversations ought to happen" about persuading Democrats to support the pistol permit measure.
But Moore also said the House may ultimately take up the Senate's broader gun bill, which contains proposals approved in his chamber with Democratic support.
Legalizing medical marijuana in North Carolina advanced again within the state Senate, less than a year after a very similar measure setting a structure for its sale and consumption passed the chamber by a wide margin.
The measure cleared the panel on a voice vote after the passage of several amendments, one of which is designed to ensure sales access in rural areas.
While the bill is expected to clear the Senate, its future once it hits the house is up in the air.