At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 1, the majority of provisions in House Bill 562, this year’s extensive rework of North Carolina gun laws and one of the more hotly debated bills of the year’s legislative session, took effect.
The date arrived between two high-profile mass shootings in Colorado Springs, Colo., and San Bernardino, Calif.
In North Carolina as across the nation, the debate over guns has grown increasingly polarized and proposed changes to gun laws from either side have has slowed.
The debate this summer over North Carolina’s new rules provided further evidence of the difficulty of shepherding new gun laws through the legislative process. Proponents of looser and tighter regulations squared off, both on the floor of the General Assembly and behind closed doors. Competing and often diametrically opposed measures were introduced.
The GOP’s most ardent gun-rights supporters introduced several bills that restricted state and local enforcement of federal gun laws, narrowed requirements and expanded concealed carry in schools and college campuses.
A group of Democrats countered those measures with an omnibus Gun Safety Act, which included a repeal of the state’s Stand Your Ground Law, a tighter permit process, prohibitions on large capacity magazines, divestment of any firearm manufacturer holdings in public funds and additional background checks for private gun transactions.
What emerged included almost none of the above, a result that was hailed as a victory by groups supporting both gun rights and gun regulations.
While gun rights advocates were disappointed that more extensive changes didn’t pass, they called it another incremental victory. Their opponents cheered the defeat of the more radical proposals.
“There were so many extreme policy changes,” Rep. Susan Fisher, a Buncombe County Democrat and co-sponsor of the Democrat’s bill said of the proposals from gun-rights supporters.
“We thought that anything we could do to stop the extreme measures was going to be a good thing.”
Although the final vote on the bill was mainly along party lines, the fight over the bill and more than a dozen proposed amendments caused splits within the parties as well.
Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, who introduced many of the gun-rights measures, fought with his own caucus over expanding concealed carry to legislature buildings and over a proposal to eliminate sheriffs’ oversight of pistol purchase permits.
In a floor speech, Pittman said the permit process allows sheriffs control over citizens “that is clearly in violation” of both the Second Amendment and the North Carolina constitution.
“The Second Amendment clearly says ‘shall not be infringed,’ he told his colleagues.
“It doesn’t say ‘shall not be infringed except in some enumerated bunch of circumstances.’ Requiring a permit is an infringement and we need to do away with it.”
Rather than altogether eliminate the requirement of approval local sheriffs, the new law restricts the kind of information they can use to reject a permit and sets up a more consistent permit process statewide.
The split over the bill was evident in Buncombe County as well with Fisher and Fairview Democrat Rep. John Ager voting against the bill and Rep. Brian Turner joining four other Democrats to support it.
“I’m a Second Amendment supporter,” Turner said in a recent interview with Carolina Public Press.
“I’m a gun owner. I hunt and I want to make sure that Second Amendment rights are supported.”
Turner, who offered the only amendment by a Democrat to pass, said he voted for the bill because it helped to clarified vague parts of state laws on permits and concealed carry. Thanks to his amendment, the new law calls for a study of allowing private individuals who are selling a gun access to a background-check system.
While pistol purchase or concealed carry permits are required for handguns, private sellers have no way of knowing whether they are selling a shotgun or rifle gun to someone who shouldn’t have one, Turner said.
Some gun shops will allow private sellers to access the background check system, he said, but requiring travel to a gun shop for a private sale isn’t as easy in rural areas.
The study, he said, asks the State SBI and Department of Public Safety to research how a background-check system would work for private sellers.
Ager said his decision to vote against the bill came down to not wanting to kowtow to the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups.
“It was a tough vote, because we really did moderate that bill,” he said.
Ager, who raises beef cattle in a mostly rural district, said the political climate has made it difficult to have a reasonable debate about guns.
As evidence of how intractable the problem is, he pointed to Congress’ recent rejection of an attempt to prevent people on a terrorism watch list from buying guns.
“Guns have become an emotional issue,” he said.
“The NRA has poisoned the well. There’s no way we can have a rational discussion on how to lower the amount of gun violence.”
Ager said 99 percent of his constituents are responsible gun owners, but that recent events underline that there has to be stronger efforts to keep firearms out of the hands of potential terrorists and people with mental health issues.
“If you’re not a stable person, the power of that gun can go to your head,” he said.
He said he is mindful that until recently Robert Lewis Dear, the man arrested late last month killing three people and wounding nine others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, lived not far away.
“Dear lived in my district, right over the mountain,” he said.
While the three Buncombe representatives did not agree on this year’s bill, they all agree that given what happened during the session, major changes in firearm laws in the spring’s short session of the legislature are doubtful.
“I think we’re at a good equilibrium,” Turner said. “I don’t see any significant changes in either direction.”
Fisher said pushback from sheriffs and other local law enforcement seen this year will likely to prevent major changes such as eliminating local review of pistol purchase permit application.
“I think we’ll see the same gridlock we had back in the last session,” she said.
Tighter controls won’t happen, Fisher said, unless voters send a message to their elected representatives that they’ve had enough.
“That’s not going to happen until people rise up and hold elected officials accountable.”
Ager said while he agrees that the legislature is in a kind of stalemate, he still expects to see an election year push from gun-rights supporters.
“There will be some pressure on them to do something,” he said.