Gary D. Robertson
RALEIGH — Republicans in the House moved ahead Wednesday with legislation that would expand the public locations where concealed weapon permit holders can store or carry handguns while also toughening penalties for people who commit crimes with a firearm.
A House judiciary committee recommended changes to existing gun rules that would build on changes approved in 2011 by the GOP-led General Assembly that expanded stand-your-ground laws and allowed concealed permit holders to carry pistols in more locations.
“It’s a balanced approach,” said Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, R-Mecklenburg, one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “What we have on the one hand (is) an effort to increase the penalties for those who do not abide by our laws and on the other hand to protect the rights of those who do own firearms.”
While some states are seeking to expand background checks and tighten gun restrictions in the wake of the December massacre of young children and educators at a Connecticut elementary school, other states, including many in the South, are going in the opposite direction and strengthening gun rights.
The new legislation in North Carolina, approved on a voice vote along party lines and now heading to the House floor, would also let the permit holders arm themselves in a restaurant where alcohol is served or at a gathering where admission is charged unless the establishment expressly prohibits concealed weapons.
Permit holders could also store their concealed weapons in a locked vehicle on a public university campus or state government parking lot. The conditions also would apply to private college campuses that don’t specifically bar the practice.
The scope of a current law that increases prison terms for anyone convicted of the most violent felony crimes while using or brandishing a gun would expand to include all felonies. People convicted of the most violent class of felonies would see any prison time increase by six years compared with five years now. Other felonies would see punishment enhancements of one or three years.
Lobbyists for the University of North Carolina system and private colleges raised concerns about the bill. Vehicle break-ins are a common crime on campus. They’re also worried about weapons holders trying to take the law into their own hands during a campus emergency, UNC system lobbyist Drew Moretz said.
“Some of the individuals who have (concealed weapon permits) are not people we feel comfortable about carrying a firearm on our campus,” N.C. State University Police Chief Jack Moorman told the committee.
Paul Valone, of the gun-rights group Grass Roots North Carolina, which supports the bill, said most mass shootings have occurred where guns have been restricted.
“The entire purpose of this is deterrence,” Valone said. “We are looking at deterring violent sociopaths from crimes on campuses.”
North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, a gun control group opposing the bill, said easier access to weapons results in a higher risk for gun-related violence, including homicides and suicides. The bill would still prohibit concealed weapons holders from drinking alcohol while armed, but it still happens, group executive director Gail Neely said.
“So the question remains, why are we doing this? Why do we need this here?” Neely asked House members.
Concealed permit owner Josette Chmiel of Durham said people who abuse the privilege to be armed have their license revoked. Permit holders go through extensive training and practice, she said.
“This is not the Wild West. We just don’t walk around with our gun, toting it around and looking for trouble,” Chmiel said, adding the bill “is rational, it’s reasonable and it’s our constitutional right to defend ourselves.”
The committee defeated an amendment by Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, to remove the provision allowing armed permit holders to patronize restaurants that serve alcohol. The provision was left out of the 2011 law when it failed to receive enough support. Several other amendments also failed.
The bill also would:
— Let authorities charge any adult who permits a child under 12 to use a gun without supervision. The current law largely applies to parents and guardians.
— Make clear local governments can regulate the possession of concealed handguns at public athletic fields, pools and gyms but not on greenways and walking paths.
— Require court clerks to enter quickly into a national criminal background databases whether a criminal suspect or someone else has been committed to a mental health facility, found not guilty by reason of insanity or determined to be mentally incompetent.