The National Rifle Association has had its crosshairs on North Carolina for decades, but the gun situation is far more complex than what its politics and culture would suggest.
Though the NRA has spent more than $11.4 million toward the state’s Senate races—the most for any sitting members of Congress—and both North Carolina senators boast perfect “A+” ratings from the NRA, North Carolina’s laws seem relatively untouched by outside influence.
In North Carolina, people can openly carry their guns in public. They are also allowed to bring them to schools, so long as the person is allowed to carry concealed weapons and the guns stay inside a locked car. Additionally, there is no waiting period for buying guns and most private sales are exempt from background checks. The only gun registry in North Carolina, which stemmed from an obscure and rarely enforced law in Durham County, was struck down in 2014.
But North Carolina diverges from its Southern neighbors on one issue—handguns.
“You need to get a permit from the sheriff before you can buy a handgun,” said Philip Cook, ITT/Terry Sanford professor emeritus of public policy studies. “And that’s true whether you’re buying the handgun from a gun store or your next-door neighbor.”
Handguns in North Carolina are also subject to other restrictions, such as a “universal” background check for all private sales and an age requirement of 21 years old instead of the usual 18 years.
“That is relatively unusual, especially among Southern states,” said Cook, who researches gun control and crime prevention.
It may seem odd to some that “long guns,” such as shotguns and rifles, are not covered by the same strict laws in North Carolina, especially since the recent mass shootings in Parkland, Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas all involved AR-15 style semi-automatic rifles. Cook provided an explanation for the reason behind this seemingly counterintuitive law.
“The wisdom of the time [in 1919] was that rifles and shotguns are used for hunting and target shooting and other sports uses. Handguns are used against people,” Cook said. “And I think that remains true today.”
He explained that the vast majority of crimes involving guns, as well as gun-related suicides, are committed using handguns. And though Cook said he supported renewing the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, a 1994 law that banned high-capacity magazines and certain semi-automatic “assault weapons,” he said that should not be the lawmakers’ top priority.
“Most of the battles we’re fighting right now on gun control are trying to keep the laws we already have,” Cook said. “We have to do that before we even start thinking about new possibilities.”
Indeed, state lawmakers have proposed bill after bill, seeking to repeal existing gun laws. In the past five years alone, there have been at least five attempts to allow carrying concealed weapons without a permit—a policy known as “constitutional carry.” There have also been three attempts to enshrine constitutional carry in the state Constitution along with three attempts to scrap the pistol purchase permit and two motions to remove mental health requirements before applying for a permit.
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One of these bills—the Gun Rights Amendment—was introduced on the state House floor the day after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
These bills were usually sponsored by Republican Reps. Larry Pittman of Cabarrus County and Michael Speciale of Beaufort County.
The General Assembly also tried twice last year to expand the list of places where people can carry a concealed handgun. The bills would have allowed concealed carry inside all community colleges in the state and all 17 campuses of the University of North Carolina system, including the residential high school North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham.
Many of these efforts lost steam after languishing for months in committees. None of them became law.
Meanwhile, Democrats have tried for six years to pass the Gun Safety Act, each time near the anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. The enormous catch-all bill sought to repeal “stand-your-ground” laws, ban high-capacity magazines and require gun owners to buy firearm liability insurance. The bill would have also created “red flag” laws, which allow police to temporarily remove a person’s access to guns if a judge deems the person dangerous.
Like their Republican counterparts, all three bills were shelved indefinitely.
Right now, lawmakers in North Carolina are considering ways to better protect schools, in an apparent reaction to the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida that killed 17 people. One proposal is to arm school faculty, an idea endorsed by President Donald Trump, Republican Tim Moore, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives and many Republican state officials.
“We have to get over this useless hysteria about guns and allow school personnel to have a chance to defend their lives and those of their students,” Pittman said, as reported in the News and Observer. “Many lives could have been saved that were lost before the police got there.”
Gov. Roy Cooper and State Superintendent Mark Johnson were quick to criticize the proposal, with Cooper calling it a “very bad idea.” Cook thought so as well.
“I think it really would be a disaster,” Cook said. “There are few worse ideas I’ve ever heard than to give teachers or private citizens guns to carry in school.”
Cook's reason was that in a given month, schools' chances of being victimized are less than one in 100,000, according to his calculations. He said this chance is too low to justify adding 1.3 million guns into the American school system and increasing the risk of crime.
“If you put more than a million guns into schools, you’re going to have a routine news story of all the accidents—cases where the teacher dropped a gun and a kid picked it up, or the teacher went nuts under the pressure of kids acting out, or who knows,” Cook said.
Instead, he suggested other ways to curb gun violence, such as placing tighter restrictions on concealed carry and giving cities like Durham the power to regulate guns.
“Guns don’t have much legitimate purpose in cities outside of the hands of trained law enforcement,” Cook said. “I think many cities would want to reinstitute a blanket ban or licensing requirements on carrying in public.”
Though cities in North Carolina and throughout the country have staged student protests to call for greater gun control measures, Cook was unconvinced that there would be any action in Congress this year, “unless it’s to further deregulate guns.” Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has declined to hold any votes on guns.
“I don’t think anything will come out of this Republican Congress that would actually strengthen gun regulation,” Cook said. “Unless the gun issue remains potent in November and people are actually voting for candidates that want to do something, it won’t make a difference.”