North Carolina Governor Called Out On Jim Crow Gun Law

North Carolina Governor Called Out On Jim Crow Gun Law
AP Photo/Julio Cortez

102 years ago a “progressive” Democrat governor in North Carolina signed a bill requiring would-be handgun owners to first obtain permission from their local sheriff before they purchased a pistol. The law gave sheriffs broad leeway in deciding who was “suitable” to possess a handgun, and as you can imagine, in the Jim Crow South, there weren’t too many black North Carolinians who were deemed suitable to exercise their right to keep a handgun in their home (much less carry one on their person).

The law is still on the books today, and is still disproportionately depriving black residents of their ability to own a handgun, even if they’re not prohibited by law from possessing a firearm. This year, however, the state sheriffs association backed a measure to take away their authority and scrap the pistol purchase permit requirement altogether, and the legislation was approved by the Republican-controlled legislature a couple of weeks ago.

Now another progressive Democrat has to decide whether to veto the bill and keep that Jim Crow-era gun control law in place, as anti-gun activists are demanding or to allow the new law to take effect, upsetting Moms Demand Action and North Carolinians Against Gun Violence but striking a blow in favor of racial equality and the right to keep and bear arms.

While most press outlets have completely ignored the law’s racist history, Carolina Journal opinion editor Ray Nothstine didn’t hold back in a recent column challenging Gov. Roy Cooper to do the right thing by signing the pistol purchase permit repeal into law.

In a 2005 piece titled “The Klan’s Favorite Law,” the author notes that pistol permits gained popularity across the South as “Jim Crow intensified.” Disturbingly, North Carolina remains the only Southern state still with the law. As new residents pour into North Carolina, many are shocked to find out such an archaic law still exists here.

“Senate Democrats cry ‘racism’ at nearly every turn,” declared state Senator Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson. “Yet they just voted to maintain a system actually created to disarm people of color, and which disproportionately impacts black people to this very day. Senate Democrats allege racism when it benefits them politically, but ignore it everywhere else.”

Republicans in the House and Senate passed the repeal on a party-line vote. However, it should be a bipartisan piece of legislation for a myriad of reasons.

Repeal of the outdated system finally gained enough momentum when the NC Sheriffs’ Association agreed it was time for the clunky permit process to end. The reason? The National Instant Criminal Background Check system — part of the federal Brady Bill legislation — is now fully updated to account for mental health, making it much better than the county sheriff system. Furthermore, it includes the purchase of all firearms and not just pistols. The NICS not only makes the old system redundant, but county pistol permits remain a significant inconvenience for residents looking to exercise an inherent right.

Those who want to buy a pistol must pay a fee, fill out paperwork, and present themselves at their county sheriff’s office. A separate permit is needed for every pistol purchase. Besides other requirements, they must be a person “of good moral character.” We should want firearm owners to be moral people, but the euphemism is an arbitrary clause that has and could be used again to deny people their rights based on social standing, politics, or even race.

It is interesting to me that North Carolina Democrats are all in favor of taking down statutes erected by Jim Crow supporters in the early 20th century, but want to keep in place the statutes enacted at the same time by those who sought to deprive black North Carolinians of the full exercise of their civil rights. Gov. Cooper has the opportunity to right an historic wrong by signing HB 398 into law, and I hope that North Carolina gun owners are urging the governor to do the right thing here and repeal the pistol purchase law in its entirety. Sure, gun control activists will complain. Michael Bloomberg might even threaten to withhold campaign donations and independent expenditures during Cooper’s next run for office.

So what? This is a civil rights issue, even if the media and gun control advocates don’t want to frame it as such.  If Roy Cooper genuinely cares about ensuring equal rights, then there’s no reason for him to keep a law in place that results in denials for black applicants at a rate almost three times higher than their white counterparts.