by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
On March 24, Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker announced he was temporarily suspending all pistol permit services until April 30. State Senators Warren Daniel (R-Burke) and Danny Britt (R-Robeson) were quick to remind him that “state law requires sheriffs to approve or reject a pistol permit within 14 days” and they called on him to “immediately rescind his illegal decision to halt sale of pistols in Wake County.”
Sheriff Baker’s decision soon attracted additional opposition. On March 27, the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association sent a message to its members informing them that, “[W]e can find no legal authority authorizing a sheriff to stop processing and issuing [pistol] permits because of a declared state of emergency.” On the same day, a group of gun-rights advocates filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, asking the court to compel Sheriff Baker to resume processing permits.
As a legal matter, Sheriff Baker’s critics are right. The law requires him to process pistol permit applications within the statutorily prescribed time frame. The courts agreed. Earlier this week, Resident Superior Court Judge A. Graham Shirley issued a consent order that required Sheriff Baker to process pistol purchase permits in “as timely a fashion as possible under the current conditions.” New concealed-carry permit applications were not part of the order.
Personally, I can’t help feeling a certain amount of sympathy for Sheriff Baker. When he announced the suspension of pistol permit services, he cited two reasons: 1) an unmanageable backlog of recently filed applications and 2) his desire to “stay in line with efforts to keep this virus out of this building.” Those both seem like genuine concerns. In fact, Judge Shirley acknowledged,
Baker’s decision to temporarily suspend acceptance of applications was due to his efforts to comply with proclamations of emergency restrictions and his paramount and legitimate concern for the public health and safety in light of the existing declared states of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.
According to Baker’s lieutenant, Scott Sefton, since the beginning of the year, the rate at which applications have been filed in Wake County has more than tripled, and the office is currently processing about 290 per day. Because the law requires applicants to appear in person, that means hundreds of applicants, any one of whom could be carrying COVID-19, are lining up outside the sheriff’s office every day, rather than sheltering at home. It also means Sheriff Baker’s staff are having to interact face-to-face with (and in many cases fingerprint) all applicants. That’s really not the sort of contact that we want right now.
The consent order requires Sheriff Baker to resume processing applications within seven days of the order, thereby giving his office time to implement any necessary procedural changes needed to protect the health and safety of permits office employees and the public. It’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with.
However, there’s actually an easier and better solution to the entire problem, one that should satisfy both Sheriff Baker and his critics. The statute requiring handgun purchase permits should be suspended for the duration of the emergency or, better still, it should be permanently repealed.
Only 10 states and the District of Columbia require pistol purchase permits. Significantly, two of those states, Illinois and Maryland, are among the 10 states with the highest homicide rates in the country, and the homicide rate in the District of Columbia is higher still. Given that, it is very hard to see what justification there can be for continuing to require pistol purchase permits in North Carolina. This is particularly true during a period when we are trying to reduce face-to-face interactions and lighten the load on government agencies.
Getting rid of this unnecessary and counterproductive regulation should be one of the General Assembly’s first orders of business when it convenes next month.