One morning this month, Kaaren Haldeman, an anthropologist in Durham, sent her three sons to school and drove to downtown Raleigh. There, down the hallways of the North Carolina General Assembly building, she led two mothers who were pushing babies in strollers.
“Have you been in this building much?” she asked them. “It's like a labyrinth.”
Haldeman, a volunteer with the gun-control advocacy group Moms Demand Action, had a list of 20 state representatives they wanted to meet. Their goal was to lobby to them to reject a controversial bill that would eliminate a requirement for people to get a permit from their local sheriff’s office before they can buy a hand gun.
In her pitch to lawmakers, Haldeman planned to cite a study that found Missouri's murder rate increased by 14 percent over four years, as a result of the state repealing its own permit-to-purchase law.
"Background checks save lives," she said.
A range of groups – from university administrators to healthcare providers and law enforcement officers – have reacted to House Bill 562. Also known as the Second Amendment Affirmation Act, the bill would change 16 sections of North Carolina’s gun laws. One of the changes includes banning physicians from asking their patients in writing whether they have a gun at home. But the strongest public reaction from gun advocates and opponents has been over the plan to repeal pistol purchase permits.
This week, Everytown For Gun Safety, a non-profit co-founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, bought TV spots in the Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro markets slamming the proposal. A spokesman declined to say how much the organization spent buying the ad.
The ad can be seen here saying, "Why do some lawmakers in Raleigh want to repeal North Carolina's handgun background check system? North Carolina law enforcement says it's a bad idea."
Indeed, the state Sheriffs Association doesn't like the bill, says association President and Cartaret County Sheriff Asa Buck.
In Cartaret County, for example, the permitting process works like this: when a person applies for a permit to purchase a hand gun, a detective scans the applicant's name through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, also known as NICS. The detective then checks court records for information that's only available locally, including:
- Assault by pointing a gun
- Domestic violence
- Driving while intoxicated
- Recurring alcohol or drug violations.
"That's the type of thing you would look at that person and say, 'Well, they're not doing a very good job at running their lives without running afoul of the law,’” Buck says. “You kind of see the way that they deal with other people in society, so it’s probably not a good idea to let that person go down and purchase a firearm'"
He adds: "I don't know a sheriff in North Carolina who's looking to violate anybody's second amendment rights."
In other words, Buck says that a federal scan doesn’t cover enough information to judge whether it would be safe to allow someone to own a firearm, and that sheriffs should be allowed to use their discretion in making the decision.
"We should consider how that discretion has been used," says Paul Valone, president of the gun-advocacy group Grassroots North Carolina. “What it says is that the sheriff can determine you're not of quote 'good moral character,' whatever that means. And whatever it means is whatever the sheriff wants it to mean. In the 1930s, it meant minorities couldn't buy guns."
The bill sponsors declined interview requests. But Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer (R-Mecklenburg) did elaborate in an email. She said there are too many inconsistencies in background checks from county to county. And that it would be better to rely exclusively on federally licensed dealers to check the database. Schaffer wrote a section of the bill directing state officials to study how they can report more information to the national database.
Critics say the bill would enable hand gun buyers to avoid the database altogether. Private sellers aren't required to check the federal database.
Kaaren Haldeman, the mother from Durham, left almost 20 letters the day she visited lawmakers. One lawmaker, Rep. Bill Brawley (R-Mecklenburg), welcomed her when she showed up without an appointment to his office. He told her he hadn’t yet read the bill, but that he understood her concerns.
“He was very good about kind of toeing the line,” she said. “I felt good. I think people are being very thoughtful about the bill.”
As they have gotten feedback, representatives have been tweaking the bill behind closed doors. But when they will have a public hearing is yet to be determined. They've already postponed three dates, including one that was scheduled this Wednesday morning.