Cooper vetoes bill eliminating pistol purchase permit system

Published 5:22 pm Tuesday, March 28, 2023

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By Hannah Schoenbaum, Associated Press/Report for America

North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed Republican gun legislation Friday that would no longer require sheriff approval before someone can purchase a handgun, initiating his first showdown of the session with an increased — and nearly veto-proof — GOP majority.

The bill repealing the state’s long-standing pistol purchase permit requirement now returns to the General Assembly, where Republicans are just one seat short of a veto-proof supermajority in the House.

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Three House Democrats and all present Republicans voted in favor of the measure week before last, signaling an override may be within reach for the first time since 2018, when the GOP last held veto-proof majorities. It heads first to the Senate — the originating chamber — where it passed along party lines.

“Eliminating strong background checks will allow more domestic abusers and other dangerous people to own handguns and reduces law enforcement’s ability to stop them from committing violent crimes,” Cooper said in a statement Friday.

Republicans have increased their margins since 2021, when Cooper successfully blocked standalone versions of the pistol permit repeal and another provision allowing people with concealed weapons permits to carry openly or under clothing while attending religious services where private or charter schools also meet. Those are among the 47 measures Cooper has defeated in the past four years.

House Speaker Tim Moore has said repeatedly that he believes Republicans now hold a “working supermajority,” with some Democrats willing to vote with the GOP on several unspecified issues. Party unity has yet to be tested by an override vote this year.

The three Democrats who supported the proposal when it passed the House — Reps. Marvin Lucas of Cumberland County, Shelly Willingham of Edgecombe County and Michael Wray of Northampton County — did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Debate in the General Assembly centered on the repeal of the century-old system directing sheriffs to evaluate each applicant’s character and ensure the gun will be used lawfully.

Although bill supporters say substantial updates to the national background check system have rendered the requirement duplicative, Democrats warn that its repeal would create a dangerous loophole. Background checks are not mandatory for private gun sales or exchanges between individuals, which require only a sheriff-issued permit.

Gun-control advocates and Democratic lawmakers argue the sheriff’s evaluation is sometimes the only barrier preventing someone with a history of violence or suicidal ideation from obtaining a gun. Its repeal, they said, would enable more people to acquire firearms from unlicensed private sellers — those not obligated to verify that the buyer can legally possess a gun — online and at gun shows.

Marcus Bass, deputy director of the North Carolina Black Alliance, said removing the sheriffs’ screening process would be “the biggest setback of gun regulations” in North Carolina history.

“The General Assembly is attempting to unlock easy access to guns across our state,” Bass said. “If they vote to overturn Gov. Cooper’s veto, we will not be able to regain access to regulation of these purchases, and any person for any reason will have open access to harm.”

People who purchase pistols from a gun store or a federally licensed dealer would still be subject to a national background check, and concealed weapons permits would still be required.

Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican and primary sponsor, said criminals are likely not acquiring the sheriff-issued permits anyway.

The repeal, he argued last month when the bill was moving through the Senate, would streamline the process for law-abiding gun buyers, some of whom currently face long wait times for their sheriffs to review permit applications. Britt said Friday that he looks forward to a swift override in the Senate.

“When given the opportunity to guarantee Second Amendment protections in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper chose to maintain our duplicative gun laws and infringe on our constitutional rights,” he said.

The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association supports the repeal in light of national system updates, but its current president does not.

Cooper also criticized the bill for allowing guns on some school properties where religious services are held, noting that it could increase the likelihood that a child gains access to a gun. Guns would not be permitted on campus during school hours or when students are present for extracurricular activities.

Republican lawmakers and several clergy members said those houses of worship do not have an equal opportunity to protect their congregants, compared with churches that do not house schools and are not affected by blanket prohibitions.

“As we predicted, anti-freedom Gov. Roy Cooper wasted no time attacking the rights of gun owners,” Grass Roots North Carolina President Paul Valone said. “Worse, he attacked the ability of church-goers to protect themselves from attacks on religious institutions that are becoming all too common.”