Scrutiny for gun laws, post-Charleston

Their timing, as it turned out, was less than impeccable.

The gun-rights boosters who are pushing N.C. House Bill 562 ran up against some common-sense objections recently that resulted in two main elements being stripped from the bill.

Later on the very evening when the bill gained final House passage, the folly of lax firearms regulation was once again illuminated by the monstrous events in Charleston, S.C., where the devil’s brew of guns and racial hatred claimed nine lives.

The fate of nine respected and beloved citizens who on June 17 had welcomed a stranger to their Wednesday night Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, only to have that stranger pull a handgun and shoot them down, has left every American of goodwill awash in grief and groping for answers.

How could anyone be so warped, so cruel, so wicked as to conceive and carry out such a crime? How could it jibe with any sense of cosmic justice that church-goers sharing their faith as they felt obliged to do would be targeted by a killer?

Many pastors, many religious and no doubt irreligious people of all varieties, are dwelling on questions of that sort as the funerals take place and as the authorities begin the process of calling Dylann Storm Roof to account for the murders he reportedly has confessed to committing.

Hearts will be examined and souls will be searched. But there are as well questions of a more practical nature – having to do not only with the killer’s motives but also his means.

When someone is bent on mayhem, it’s not necessary to have a gun. Case in point: the Boston bombers, armed with exploding pressure cookers seeded with shrapnel.

But a gun is convenient. Aside from Boston, Oklahoma City and the off-the-charts terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, when people in this country go murderously berserk, they typically start shooting. The roll is sickeningly familiar: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown. And so on.

Keeping and bearing

Hence the ongoing national debate over the true and proper reaches of the 2nd Amendment. Unless we’re prepared to sell other Constitutional rights down the river as well, we have to take the amendment’s pledge – that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed – at face value. But that doesn’t mean, and has never been interpreted to mean, that we can’t institute reasonable controls on firearms ownership and use. Sure, go buy a handgun – but first convince the local sheriff that you’re a solid citizen.

That’s the law as it stands in North Carolina. Yet H.B. 562, as first proposed, would have phased out the state’s system whereby sheriffs determine someone’s fitness to own a pistol.

Instead of pistol permits, issued county by county – presumably by officials who could make an informed judgment as to whether the weapon would be lawfully used – the only oversight would have come via a dealer’s request through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. That system’s effectiveness can be endlessly debated. But it’s hard to deny that doing away with permitting by sheriffs would have amounted to a major fix of something that wasn’t broken.

The good news is that when the House got finished with H.B. 562, the sheriffs’ authority remained largely intact. (It helped that the N.C. Sheriffs Association had raised a ruckus.) Furthermore, the House dropped another key provision favored by gun-rights supporters.

As introduced, the bill would have kept health care providers from using patient-information questionnaires to inquire about someone’s “use, storage or possession” of firearms. Nor would doctors, nurses, psychologists, etc. have been allowed to alert law enforcement authorities if a patient said something alarming about his or her access to guns – unless there were signs of a direct threat to individual or public safety.

That provision was notably absent in the bill as approved by the House. So was an almost ludicrous measure that would have allowed legislators to carry concealed weapons in their respective chambers – for what valid and necessary purpose it’s impossible to say.

For all that, the bill is meant to strengthen gun owners’ rights, not to further balance them with the equally valid rights of other folks to go about their lives without fearing they’ll be caught up in the crossfire of a modern-day OK Corral.

Now, the Senate will have to decide whether – with the Charleston outrage fresh in everyone’s mind – this is the time once again to genuflect to the gun owners, gun dealers and gun manufacturers whose interests lie in puny firearms rules. Let’s hope that, as they did in the House, wiser and cooler heads will prevail.

Go see the sheriff

At this point it’s far from clear whether weaknesses in South Carolina gun laws or the enforcement of those laws helped Dylann Roof acquire the .45-caliber Glock semi-automatic pistol that he allegedly used to execute his nine victims.

An uncle of Roof’s told reporters that the weapon was given to the young man by his father, as a 21st birthday present. But other sources told the Associated Press that Roof actually was given birthday money that he then used to buy the gun – which reportedly has been traced to a South Carolina gun shop.

The fact that Roof faced a misdemeanor drug possession charge evidently wouldn’t have blocked such a sale under South Carolina law, even with the requirement for an instant background check. He would not have been required to obtain a permit to buy the weapon.

In North Carolina, an unlawful drug user isn’t eligible for a sheriff’s handgun permit. The pending North Carolina bill also underscores a sheriff’s authority to deny a permit to someone because of misdemeanor charges involving violence – domestic violence, for example. Absent amendments backed by House Republicans, who control the chamber, sheriffs would have been cut out of the picture entirely.

According to the AP, Roof’s handgun was twice taken away from him by people worried about his intentions. In one instance, he recovered it – from his mother. In the other, friends returned it to him. In hindsight, we can see that Dylann Roof was a poor candidate indeed to be entrusted with a weapon capable of killing nine people almost (but not quite) before they knew what was happening.

Any sheriff asked to review Roof’s background and character would have had ample grounds to flag his application for a pistol permit – if such a system had been in effect. There’s no good reason to abandon the permitting system North Carolina fortunately does have – and senators contemplating the Charleston tragedy ought to have the good sense and decency, when considering changes to this state’s gun laws, to leave well enough alone. Unless, that is, they want to make those laws stronger.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.

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