Jim Crow-Era Gun Control Law Preventing Pistol Sales In One NC County

The sheriff of Wake County, North Carolina is facing mounting criticism over his decision to suspend issuing pistol purchase permits for one month, but the bigger issue is the fact that the state still has a Jim Crow-era law on the books that requires sheriffs to individually approve purchases of handguns to begin with.

Sheriff Gerald Baker says his office is simply swamped with pistol purchase permit applications, and he wants to take the month to work through the backlog and give office staff the ability to limit their interactions with the public to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The problem is that under state law, unless you possess a concealed carry license, you must acquire that permit before you can legally buy a handgun, and the sheriff’s office has 14-days to process your application.

Baker’s decision has led some to say it’s an infringement on their second amendment right, including Speaker of the House Tim Moore (R).

“The problem is people are scared right now, and in times when people are scared you can’t be denying them their ability to protect themselves. It feeds into a lot of paranoia and mistrust,” Moore said.

Moore also questioned the legality of the move.

Baker says the decision does not limit anyone’s right to purchase a handgun.  Rather, he says, the move will limit people encountering each other during the state of emergency.

“We’re not telling you you can no longer get pistol permits, but what we’re trying to do is still in line with the efforts of keeping that virus out of this building,” he said.

Sheriff Baker needs to be honest here. He is telling people they can no longer get pistol permits, at least not until April 30th. While residents of Wake County can still purchase rifles and shotguns without a government-issued permission slip, residents in Wake County are out of luck if they want to purchase the most commonly sold firearm for self-defense over the next five weeks.

Look, every sheriff in the country is dealing with similar issues and concerns for staff right now, and I definitely understand Baker’s desire to see employees of the sheriff’s office remain free of the coronavirus. At the same time, the sheriff can’t simply shut off access to acquiring handguns for law-abiding citizens without infringing on their Second Amendment rights. The Heller case determined that a ban on handguns is unconstitutional. A temporary deprivation of the right to purchase them is just as unconstitutional in my opinion.

For now, the sheriff could adopt social distancing measures like limiting office visits to appointments, which would give employees time to clean the front-facing office areas between visits. They could also handle much of the paperwork outside the sheriff’s office in the parking lot if need be.

In the long run, however, I hope this helps spell the end for the state’s pistol purchase permit law, which grants sheriffs broad discretion to approve or deny individuals for lack of good cause or moral character. These types of discretionary issue permitting laws have largely fallen by the wayside around the country, but in North Carolina the law remains as a remnant of the Jim Crow laws that were routinely used to deny black Americans their equal rights under the Constitution. It needs to be scrapped, and the current snafu in Wake County is the perfect excuse for lawmakers to revisit the issue.

Let me be clear. I don’t think Sheriff Baker is trying to deny black residents of Wake County their Second Amendment rights. I’ll even take the sheriff at his word when he says he’s simply trying to clear the backlog of 755 pending pistol purchase permit applications before accepting any more. Clearly the county needs to increase staffing on a temporary basis to handle the surge in applications, and possibly add a second or third shift to the office in order to continue processing applications while maintaining social distancing.

The fact is that a large number of county residents now want to purchase a firearm, and their sheriff is telling them they’re going to have to wait for more than a month to do so. That’s simply unacceptable, and unconstitutional to boot.