North Carolina is currently middle of the road in gun laws.

The Giffords Law Center, which compiles information on each state, puts North Carolina at No. 25 nationally in terms of the strength of its gun laws. This still gives the state a grade of D-minus, but the center has very tough standards1.

Coincidentally, now-Gov. Roy Cooper published a handy guide to North Carolina’s gun laws in December 20152 when he was the state attorney general.

First, it’s important to note federal requirements that apply in our state.

The big one is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database maintained by the FBI. Any licensed dealer who is selling any type of firearm needs to call up the bureau and run the name of the buyer through the NICS database. This will check to see if the buyer falls under any of the following categories, who may not purchase the weapon:

  • Undocumented immigrant
  • History of drug abuse
  • Dishonorable discharge from the military
  • Renounced U.S. citizenship
  • Committed for mental health reasons
  • Outstanding warrants
  • Domestic violence protection orders
  • Criminal history

N.C. clerks of court have 48 hours after a ruling involving one of the above categories to get the information to the federal database.

Here are some of the major state-specific gun laws in North Carolina.

  • Anyone wanting to buy a handgun, either from a dealer or from a private seller, must get a permit from their county sheriff’s office. The sheriff is responsible for assessing the “good moral character of the applicant,” but the law only really directs them to consider the factors the NICS already covers.
  • The buyer also has to say why they want the gun and give detailed information on home address and driver’s license number. The sheriff’s office maintains a database of people with these permits and will hand it over to law enforcement when requested.
  • Gun buyers must be 18 to purchase a shotgun or rifle and 21 to buy a handgun from a licensed dealer. North Carolinians can buy a handgun from a private seller at age 18.
  • It’s illegal to possess a machine gun, defined as a weapon capable of automatic fire (shooting more than one bullet with one pull of the trigger).
  • North Carolina is one of 22 states that requires information on people ordered to receive outpatient mental health treatment, not just who have been committed, to the NICS database.
  • Private sellers do not need to conduct background checks for the sale of rifles or long guns.

North Carolina ranks No. 21 in the number of gun-related per capita deaths nationally, with 13.6 deaths per 100,000 people3. This is above the national average of 11.7, but ahead of neighbors like South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee4

Civilians participate in a marksmanship competition at the North Carolina National Guard’s Camp Butner Training Site. Photo by the N.C. National Guard via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Here’s what Gov. Cooper has proposed for gun law changes.

Gov. Cooper has carved out a reputation as a left-leaning moderate politician who is open to compromise and hesitant to do battle with the Republicans who run the state.

This has served him well, for the most part. It got him to the governor’s mansion, after all. Then it allowed him to declare victory in a repeal of House Bill 2.

I haven’t seen any specific bill language, but Cooper did publish a piece on Medium5 outlining what he wants to see done.

1) Extreme risk protection orders. This would create a mechanism for family members or law enforcement to go to court and ask a judge to order the removal of all guns from a person deemed a risk for committing gun violence, like threats or reckless handling. This has been a big deal lately because the shooter in Parkland, Florida showed all kinds of warning signs. Even the NRA now supports implementing these6.

Interestingly, only three states — California, Washington, and Oregon — currently have laws like this on the books.

2) Ban “bump stocks.” This is a type of gun body7 that helps uses the motion of the gun’s recoil to fire multiple times without much trigger finger movement. Basically, “bump shooting” is when the shooter keeps his trigger finger bent, and the gun will ricochet against the shooter’s shoulder and ram back into the trigger finger to shoot again. Bump stocks make this easier by letting the gun slide back and forth.

Here’s a short video showing how it works. It does let the shooter get more bullets off in a smaller amount of time but creates wildly inaccurate shots. There’s no real purpose for it, though, so most people are OK with banning these stocks.

There is already support in the Republican-controlled Congress to ban them, and in North Carolina’s state legislature as well.

3) Raise the minimum age to 21 and require a permit to buy “assault weapons,” even in private sales. This is the only thing Cooper lays out that would be controversial. This essentially expands the process used to buy a handgun in North Carolina today to cover “assault weapons” as well.

However, Cooper does not define what an assault weapon is. North Carolina does not have a definition of assault weapon on the books.

When the federal government had an assault weapons ban, it referred to semi-automatic guns that had at least two of the following features:

  • Folding or telescoping stock
  • Pistol grip
  • Bayonet mount
  • Flash suppressor
  • Grenade launcher

These are mostly cosmetic features only and have nothing to do with anything the gun does.

Here’s your standard-issue small-game rifle.

The Ruger 10/22, perhaps the best-selling gun on the planet.

But this gun is the exact same model, a Ruger 10/22, as the one below. It’s just that the gun below has after-market features.

Also a Ruger 10/22. Photo from Sportsmans Outdoor Superstore.

Some states actually have a ban on these “assault” types of weapons. In response, gun manufacturers have come up with so-called “featureless rifles” that comply. Here’s an example:

Featureless rifle image via

This “featureless” gun would not need a background check in a private sale under Cooper’s proposal and an 18-year-old could buy it.

Here’s the problem with expanding the permit process.

The permit process for pistol purchases has only been in place since December 2015, and immediately created bureaucratic headaches.

Mecklenburg, Forsyth and Iredell counties all reported backlogs in processing applications and spent thousands upon thousands of dollars in overtime and temporary staff to get through them all. The law stated that sheriff’s offices had 14 days to work through the applications. Instead, it can take 4 months or more.

Presumably, there were delays in other counties as well.

Here’s the thing, though. The sheriff’s offices aren’t looking for anything that the federal government doesn’t already track in the NICS database described earlier in this article.

Yes, the sheriff’s office does have more discretion to deny permits. But if they were to deny people for arbitrary reasons, it would bring with it a whole host of concerns about discrimination based on race or other factors.

There’s been a move to repeal the pistol permit requirement but I don’t see that going anywhere in this environment.

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What Cooper could have proposed instead.

There is value in closing the loophole that allows private sales of firearms without background checks.

But it would be more reasonable for North Carolina to consider changing the law to require all firearm sales to go through a background check, not just handguns or “assault weapons,” whatever that ends up meaning.

States like Connecticut already do this. Private sellers can go through a licensed dealer to get access to the NICS database before selling. There’s no real reason to require the county sheriff’s office to issue permits.

The bump stock ban and emergency protective orders can stay as they are.

If he wanted to go farther, other states have simple gun provisions Cooper could have copied.

Several states, for example, ban the sale of high-capacity magazines8.

Ohio puts the number at 31 cartridges9. California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Washington D.C. all ban magazines with capacity of more than 10 or 15 rounds.

These would be controversial, too — but worthy of debate.

The Giffords Center has other model laws you can take a look at if you’d like.

Why did Cooper go this route?

Probably it’s just politics.

Cooper has proposed two safe gun law changes that were in the works already. He can now take some credit when they go through10.

Then there’s a third proposal that will likely not get traction due to being woefully ill-defined. This gives Cooper the ability to criticize Republicans in November and in 2020.

Will Cooper be able to thread this political needle? Or will he face criticism from both sides of the aisle? We’ll see.

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