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By Gavin Off, goff@charlotteobserver.com

One of the only surviving bills in the N.C. General Assembly related to gun control would close permit information to the public, making it nearly impossible for groups to watchdog how the government issues licenses to buy hundreds of thousands of handguns.

At many as 14 other bills concerning guns died last week when they failed to pass at least one chamber of the legislature before Thursday’s deadline.

The bill to seal the permit records, however, passed the House nearly two months ago and seems headed for approval in the Republican-controlled Senate, lawmakers said.

The Observer recently used data from the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office to find dozens of felons – some violent – who may hold active permits to buy guns. The group includes people convicted of murder, manslaughter and robbery with a dangerous weapon.

The newspaper also identified as many as 230 permit holders with drug convictions. North Carolina law says permit holders can’t use or be addicted to illegal drugs.

With the data closed, citizens, news reporters or other watchdogs would be unable to learn if felons or drug abusers have active permits.

Supporters of closing the data cite the need to protect the privacy of gun owners.

The move was spurred partly by a suburban New York newspaper’s decision in December to create an online map of local gun owners. The House approved the bill, 97-20.

“This is not anything about trying to conceal information,” said Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, who supports the bill. “I just see it as a mistake waiting to occur.”

Bingham is the publisher of the Denton Orator, a weekly newspaper. He said readers would chase him out of town if he were to publish the names of permit holders in his area.

But when told of the Observer’s findings, Bingham said the state needs to fix its permitting system.

Permits are good for five years, long enough for a person to obtain a permit, commit a felony, and be sentenced and released from jail with the permit still valid. The courts don’t usually notify sheriffs when the person is convicted. Even if they do, the Sheriff’s Office has no authority to revoke the permit.

That’s a problem because a valid purchase permit in North Carolina substitutes as a background check at the gun shop.

“I think the solution is going to be immediate revocation when convicted of a felony,” Bingham said. “I don’t see how else to resolve it.”

Keeping permit records open, he said, isn’t going to solve the problem of preventing felons from holding permits.

But many Democrats oppose closing the gun data.

“I don’t want big brother looking over every shoulder, but I do want someone trying to keep up with who might be off kilter in my community,” said Sen. Martin Nesbitt Jr., D-Buncombe, a gun collector himself. “We can’t keep finding out about it after we have 20 dead.”

Two bills that supporters said would have strengthened North Carolina’s permitting system died last week.

One would have cut the life of a permit to three years. The other would have given sheriffs the authority to revoke a permit if the holders were convicted of a crime that would have barred them from getting the permit in the first place.

Sheriff’s offices balk

To prove that felons might hold active gun permits, the Observer matched a Mecklenburg database of gun permit holders with a state database of criminal convictions.

Mecklenburg Sheriff Chipp Bailey provided permit data after a records request.

“We’re going to do what the law says, as much as I don’t like it,” Bailey said.

But not all sheriffs released permit data.

When asked for its records, the Gaston County Sheriff’s Office released only aggregate gun permit information, keeping private the names and addresses of permit holders.

The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office declined to provide any permit data.

Sen. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth, said she’d like to find a way to protect gun owners’ privacy – especially that of single women – but does not want the records closed.

Neither does Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake.

Blue said he would hate to stop watchdog groups from investigating the government, especially when sheriff’s offices have a hard time finding felons themselves..

“It’s ridiculous to close access to the point that you can’t do research,” Blue said.

Nesbitt Jr., Parmon and Blue sit on a Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hear the bill.

Awaiting in the Senate Rules Committee is another gun bill that survived Thursday’s deadline.

That bill, sponsored by four Republican House members, would allow concealed carry permit holders to take guns into bars, restaurants, college campuses and greenways.


More information

Surviving gun bills in N.C. General Assembly

HB 17: Would close to the public all gun purchase and concealed carry permit information.

HB 937: Would let people with concealed carry permits carry weapons into bars, restaurants, college campuses and greenways.

HB 405: Would let a justice or judge with a concealed carry permit carry a concealed weapon on certain premises or in certain circumstances.

SB 124: Would make it a criminal offense to discharge a firearm in an enclosed area to incite fear.

SB 443: Would allow for the sale of abandoned firearms to people licensed as firearms collectors, importers or manufacturers rather than sold solely to a licensed gun dealer or being destroyed.

The Charlotte Observer

The Charlotte Observer is one of North Carolina's leading news organizations. It offers regional, state and local news in a daily newspaper and online at www.charlotteobserver.com.

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