By Hannah Schoenbaum
North Carolina residents can now buy a handgun without getting a permit from a local sheriff, after the Republican-controlled legislature on Wednesday overrode the Democratic governor’s veto — a first since 2018.
The House voted 71-46 to enact the bill, which eliminates the longstanding permit system requiring sheriffs to perform character evaluations and criminal history checks of pistol applicants. The Senate overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto in a party-line vote on Tuesday.
The permit repeal takes effect immediately. Cooper and Democratic lawmakers warned it allows a greater number of dangerous people to obtain weapons through private sales, which do not require a background check, and limits law enforcement’s ability to prevent them from committing violent crimes.
Those who purchase pistols from a gun store or a federally licensed dealer are still subject to a national background check, and concealed weapons permits are still required.
Bill supporters say the sheriff screening process for handguns was no longer necessary in light of significant updates to the national background check system. They also argue the permit system wasn’t very effective at preventing criminals from obtaining guns.
The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association supports the repeal in light of national system updates, but its current president does not.
Although Republican seat gains in the midterm elections gave them veto-proof margins in the Senate, they were one seat shy of a similar majority in the House.
Wednesday’s House vote tally showed three Democrats — Reps. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County, Cecil Brockman of Guilford County and Michael Wray of Northampton County — failed to vote on the override, creating enough of a margin to meet the constitutional requirement. Republicans needed at least one Democratic member to join them, or as few as two Democrats not to vote.
Brockman was in urgent care Wednesday morning, according to a statement released by his office. Cotham said in a statement that she was receiving scheduled hospital treatment and had informed both parties that she would be absent. She said she does not support the permit repeal.
A phone message left at Wray's legislative office wasn't immediately returned Wednesday. Republicans gave Wray and Cotham key committee chairmanships this year — a rarity for the majority party in power.
A liberal-leaning group called Carolina Forward put out a fundraising tweet soon after the vote targeting the three representatives, vowing to “hold them accountable.”
House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican presiding over the chamber during the override vote, said the provisions contained within the bill “have been long-standing goals of Second Amendment advocates in our state, and we have finally brought this legislation over the finish line.”
Moore used parliamentary maneuvers Wednesday to block floor debate before the vote, causing frustration among Democrats.
Cooper, who is term-limited from seeking reelection next year, criticized the the move by House leadership, saying in a tweet that arguments to uphold his veto would have been “too compelling for them to hear.”
Before the Senate vote Tuesday, some Democrats urged against loosening gun access in the immediate aftermath of Monday's mass shooting at a private Christian school in Nashville, despite Republicans' insistence that lawmakers refrain from politicizing the shooting.
“For us to come in this tone deaf about what happened in Nashville and to pretend that it doesn't matter, to pretend that that might not be an issue that we've got to bring up, is disturbing — with a bunch of kids sitting up here," said House Minority Leader Robert Reives, referring to the school group watching from the gallery.
While Reives said he asked all Democratic caucus members to be present, he refused to criticize those who were absent or didn't vote. The Chatham County Democrat told reporters the permit repeal could allow domestic abusers and mentally ill people at risk of suicide to obtain guns.
The enacted bill also will allow guns on some school properties where religious services are held, effective Dec. 1. The new law also creates and funds a two-year awareness campaign on the safe storage of firearms, which will distribute free gun locks.
In 2021, 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 at houses of worship where private or charter schools also meet. At the time, Democrats had enough seats to block any override attempt if they stayed united.
Guns will not be permitted on campus during school hours or when students are present for extracurricular activities, and houses of worship can opt out by posting signs.
Gun-rights advocates celebrated the override after trying for years to pass the pistol permit repeal.
“Second Amendment supporters made history today,” said Paul Valone, executive director of Grass Roots North Carolina, which campaigned last year for candidates so that Republican majorities could override Cooper’s gun-related vetoes.
Gun-control advocates lamented the override, saying the handgun permit elimination would imperil more people’s lives in the nation’s ninth-largest state.
“We will wake up five or 10 years from now and see that our gun homicide and gun suicide rates have risen,” Becky Ceartas with North Carolinians Against Gun Violence said in a news release.
Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Associated Press writer Gary Robertson contributed from Raleigh.