Bill to deregulate concealed carry poses political dilemma for GOP

By: - June 16, 2017 8:23 am
Partially concealed pistol in a purse. (Adobe Stock)

Royal Diadem Jewelers in Greensboro sets itself apart in a number of small ways – fast and friendly service, an intimate small business feel, Christian messages packed with your receipt for a pair of earrings or luxury watch repair.

And then there’s the message, painted on the glass next to the front door beneath the business hours.

“Concealed Carry Welcome.”

It’s almost small enough to miss, but its impact – when it is noticed – is outsized.

“We get a lot more positive comments about it than anyone saying anything negative,” said store manager Brian Wilson. “We get people who are thankful, who thank us for doing it.”

In North Carolina, it has been legal to carry a concealed handgun since 1995 – with a permit issued by a county sheriff’s office. As the North Carolina General Assembly considers a bill to eliminate the need for a concealed carry permit in most circumstances, Wilson said his business’ sign is indicative of a philosophy that just makes sense.

“I would say that type of sign is relatively rare here,” Wilson said this week. “The first place we really saw it was at a bank in Texas. But I think it sends a few messages.”

The first, Wilson said, is that the business supports the lawful carry of concealed weapons for self defense. It also puts anyone who might be carrying a gun for unlawful reasons on notice that there may be people inside packing and ready to defend themselves. The store has never been robbed.

Wilson is himself a concealed carry permit holder and has taken the state mandated safety course allowing him to legally conceal a handgun. But he’s one of a number of gun owners throughout the state who feel the course isn’t really necessary.

“What you find out when you take the course is in North Carolina is that it’s more about information,” Wilson said. “You do have to shoot and qualify, but It’s more like a hunter’s safety course – more information about what your rights and responsibilities are.”

Those who are interested in carrying responsibly will seek out that information on their own, Wilson said. Those who aren’t may just go through the motions of the course but not actually take in the most important information, Wilson said, like a teenager who passes a driver’s test to get a license but isn’t actually concerned with safe driving.

Many in law enforcement across the state are opposing the bill. That includes the North Carolina Association of Police Chiefs, the Fraternal Order of Police and some of the state’s most popular conservative police chiefs and sheriffs. Even some of those supporting it are calling for changes that would require some sort of training. Allowing concealed without it at 18 doesn’t make sense, they say.

Those concerns reflect a broader ongoing tension over gun laws that divides even the Republican majority in Raleigh. Last week the new measure – House Bill 746 – passed in the North Carolina House. But with Democratic support and a number of Republicans vocally opposing it, the House vote didn’t reflect a substantial enough majority to overturn a likely veto from Gov. Roy Cooper.
For that reason it seems increasingly likely that the measure could die in the Senate, where it has not yet been scheduled for a vote. Both chambers are working to reconcile differences on the state budget and are hoping to adjourn early next month.

Republican Senators were reluctant to talk about the bill on record this week. Privately, a number of GOP lawmakers are saying it introduces unwarranted controversy to a session that has already had plenty. It also pits even conservative law enforcement against GOP lawmakers – not a great look, politically.

Sen. Floyd McKissick

Democratic Senators were more forthcoming.

“It’s a regretful bill and it’s something that our law enforcement agencies do not support in this state,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. (D-Durham).

“There is no reason that we should reduce from 21 to 18 the opportunity for people to get concealed carry permits,” McKissick said. “The data shows that those between 18 and 21 are four times more likely to become involved in an encounter where they will end up being a fatality. We need to look at that data in and of itself.”

“The more we put guns in the hands of young people who may not be mature enough to handle those responsibilities – and not require training that’s required to do so – the greater we enhance the possibility that we are going to see more horrific incidences occur,” McKissick said.

Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram (D-Northhampton) agreed.

Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram

“I think, as we saw with the shooting of a Congressman in Alexandria this week, these are very troubled times,” said Smith-Ingram. “I don’t think now is the time to do away with a permitting process that has worked both as an extra screening for people and also as a way to makes sure people have some training and aren’t just carrying concealed starting at 18.”

Smith-Ingram said she’ll be surprised if the bill gets a vote in the Senate as it would put the GOP majority in an awkward position. Lawmakers who have expressed reservations about the bill would have to change their tune if they want to again overturn a veto by a Democratic governor who has yet to have one sustained. Failing to sustain the veto could give the governor a political victory on an issue with which most North Carolinians agree with him, Smith-Ingram said.

Trying to amend the bill to include the training reluctant Republican lawmakers would like to see would be difficult, Smith-Ingram said, without some sort of permitting process in place. That’s a deal breaker for the Republicans who want to see that barrier to concealed carry disappear.

But failing to pass the bill would be a larger political problem for Republicans, said some gun rights groups.

“We hold legislators accountable for their votes,” said Paul Valone, president and co-founder of gun rights group Grassroots North Carolina. “We keep a long history of their votes, their survey scores, everything else about them.”

Valone said he believes the GOP votes will materialize to overturn a veto from the governor – who should be reluctant to oppose the bill in the first place.

“f the governor vetoes it, I will have all the ammunition I need – metaphorically speaking – to go after the governor in his reelection bid,” Valone said. “ If he was successful in vetoing it, it would tell everybody exactly where the governor stands on their gun rights. It would be a fresh reminder that the governor opposes the right of people to protect themselves.”

“I would say to the governor, ‘Please veto it,’” Valone said. “Go ahead, make my day.”

But even the state’s gun rights groups aren’t all in agreement on the bill.

North Carolina Gun Rights sent an emergency message to its e-mail list this month opposing the bill as a watered down measure indicative of GOP leadership’s lack of seriousness about the Second Amendment.

That group would like to see permits to purchase pistols done away with altogether – a proposal that was scrapped as the current bill took shape and which Valone said wasn’t going to pass.

“I understand the assertion that the bill doesn’t go far enough,” said Valone, whose group would also like to see pistol permits eliminated. “But I also understand that we’re going after what is achievable.”

“This bill removes many of the hurdles and obstacles to concealed carry – people who can’t afford permits, people who can’t afford the course and everything else, people who frankly don’t want to be on the radar as far as their sheriff’s office,” Valone said.

Just as the political left accepts incremental progress in passing new gun laws, Valone said, his group accepts incremental progress in eliminating them.

Michael Bitzer – Catawba College

Michael Bitzer, professor of Political Science and History at Catawba College, said that with gun issues – at the state and the national level – it’s difficult to bridge the partisan divide.

“In this environment, both sides are emboldened in their own respective corners,” Bitzer said. “Even with the news of the tragedy in Virginia, I think unfortunately both sides are going to stick to their own guns when it comes to the issue – they will see it as bolstering their own arguments.”

Seeing law enforcement and GOP lawmakers on opposing sides of a bill is relatively rare in North Carolina politics, Bitzer said – but that may be down to the unique nature of the issue.

“It really speaks to this issue,” Bitzer said. “And the importance of the issue to law enforcement and the practitioners vs. the ideological beliefs of the politicians.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.