NC Explainer: Gun Legislation
A wide variety of North Carolina laws are poised to change, including where you can carry guns, what you need to vote and which clinics can provide abortions.
The changes are the result of the legislative session that ended last week. It was the first in more than a century in which Republicans controlled both the General Assembly and the governor's mansion. And they shook things up.
If you had a hard time keeping track of all the action, you are certainly not alone. So now that we've had time to take a deep breath, we're going to explain some of the changes. Every day this week we'll take a closer look at key pieces of legislation – some that got a lot of attention, and some that didn't.
We'll start this morning with far-reaching legislation on gun rights. It passed the General Assembly and is awaiting the governor's signature.
You can break the legislation down to this: it expands gun rights for people who follow the law, and it increases criminal penalties for people who don't.
Let's start with the expansion. People with concealed carry permits will be able to bring handguns to a lot more places. This includes parades, playgrounds, restaurants and bars. Also, they can bring them into a public school or college parking lot as long as they keep them locked in the car.
Representative Jacqueline Schaffer from Charlotte helped write the legislation. She emphasizes that only people who go through the process of getting a concealed carry permit will be able to bring guns to the new locations.
"They have really gone the extra mile to get that training, go through the background checks, things like that," Schaffer said. "These are the law-abiding folks. And so we want to make sure that their right to protect themselves, that those rights are protected"
Concerns About The Changes
But some in education and law enforcement have concerns about the change. The superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for example, said he thinks it's a bad idea to have guns locked in cars in school parking lots. And the association representing police chiefs in North Carolina is also concerned about that. Here's the president of the association, Apex Police Chief John Letteney:
"In our communities, one of the highest volume crimes is break-ins to vehicles," Letteney said. "When people know that there could likely be firearms locked in vehicles on campus, we're concerned that there may be an increase in thefts, and then those guns would now be in the hands of criminals."
Chief Letteney said police are also concerned about people bringing guns to bars. He put it pretty simply: firearms and alcohol don't mix. Representative Schaffer agreed, and she said the legislation makes it clear you're not allowed to drink if you're carrying a gun.
Also, restaurant and bar owners who don't want someone to bring a gun into their establishment can put up a sign saying so.
The Permit System
In the past, it’s been up to local sheriffs to approve or deny permits for people who want to carry a handgun. That system stays in place under the new legislation.
At one point, there was a chance that permit system would be repealed. The state Sheriffs' Association thought that was an awful idea. Eddie Caldwell is the association's executive vice president, and he said keeping the permit system is a win for all North Carolinians.
"Nobody on any side of any of the gun issues, whether you're a gun advocate or a gun opponent, wants people to get guns who would be doing so in violation of the law because of criminal convictions or mental health issues," Caldwell said. "And the permit process that is administered by the sheriffs is much more thorough than the federal check."
Caldwell said that's because sheriffs have access locally to more mental health and criminal records than the feds do.
The permit system will change though. Sheriffs will need to approve or deny permits more quickly, they can't limit how many permits someone can get and they need to track how many are denied and why.
Increasing Criminal Penalties
The legislation also increases criminal penalties. In short, if you commit a crime using a gun, you're going to prison for longer than you would've before.
Jeff Welty is a professor of public law and government at UNC-Chapel Hill, and he's studied the legislation. Here's one of the big changes:
"Anyone who commits a felony of any kind with a gun faces an enhanced sentence ranging from a one-year increase to a six-year increase because of the gun," Welty said, "whereas prior law provided for a five-year increase but only for people who committed very serious felonies with a gun."
The legislation also creates a new sort of category for people who are convicted of two separate felonies using a gun. It’s called armed habitual felon. Welty said now it’s kind of like two strikes you're out – armed habitual felons will get substantially longer sentences.
Most of the changes will go into effect in October, assuming the governor doesn't veto the legislation.
Update: Governor McCrory signed the legislation into law Monday afternoon.