There’s no doubt that North Carolina’s pistol purchase permit law is a relic of the Jim Crow era. The law dates back to 1919, and requires all potential buyers of handguns to first obtain a permission slip from their local sheriff, who can grant or deny the permit application based on subjective standards like “good moral character.” While the law may be racially neutral in its wording, in practice it’s been used to deny Black residents their right to possess a handgun for self-defense, and even today a study has found that Black applicants in Wake County, North Carolina are almost three times as likely to be denied a pistol purchase permit compared to White applicants.
Gun control activists, however, are still defending the law, and seem utterly unwilling or unable to even acknowledge the racist roots of the law and the disparate impact it has today. Recently, Rob Scofield, the executive director of NC Policy Watch, sat down for a conversation with Becky Ceartas, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, and the two White gun control supporters lavished praise on the law that’s prevented Black residents from exercising their Second Amendment rights.
Scofield began their discussion by referring to the Jim Crow-era law as “one of the great protections” that North Carolina has had in place, describing it as a “simple law that required sheriffs to sign off if people are making handgun purchases,” adding that “it’s clearly stopped a lot of people who shouldn’t have guns from getting them down through the years.”
Has it really? After all, even after obtaining a pistol purchase permit prospective gun buyers have to go through a background check when they purchase a pistol from a federally licensed firearm dealer. Those with criminal intent, meanwhile, aren’t getting a pistol purchase permit because they’re typically not getting their guns through legal means to begin with.
Ceartas ignored that fact, instead claiming that the law has “closed the gun show loophole” by requiring all gun buyers to get their permission slip from the local sheriff. Of course if that were truly the case, then there would be no illicit market for firearms in the state, which clearly isn’t the case. The law doesn’t stop any crimes from being committed; it simply makes it a criminal offense to possess a pistol without first getting the okay from their local sheriff.
The pair spent nearly ten minutes discussing North Carolina’s pistol purchase permitting system, and not once did either of them mention the history behind the gun control law or its disparate impact on Black residents of the state. Instead, they claimed that the permitting system is just like having to get a driver’s license before getting behind the wheel of a car, and who could be opposed to that?
Well, the last time I checked, you don’t have to try to prove your “good moral character” when you go to the DMV, nor can the person behind the counter decide that you don’t deserve a driver’s license because they have concerns about your suitability to drive a car. That is, however, exactly what happens with North Carolina’s pistol purchase permitting system, and would-be gun owners who aren’t as lily-white as Scofield, Ceartas, and myself are disproportionately denied their right to own a handgun as a result.
I’m sure that for upper-middle class White gun control activists like Scofield and Ceartas the state’s pistol purchase permit law seems like a good idea. I don’t know if they’re ignorant of the law’s intent, don’t see a problem with denying a larger percentage of Black residents from legally acquiring a handgun, or just want to believe that the law is now being applied in a racially neutral fashion, but whatever their reasoning, they’re turning a blind eye to the actual consequences of the statute. For those of us who understand that the right to keep and bear arms is a right of “the People,” and not just some people, the law is an unconscionable and unconstitutional way to keep Black North Carolinians from being able to fully exercise their civil rights.