WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - There are more than 10,000 people in Southeastern North Carolina with concealed carry permits - giving them the right to conceal a gun while out in public.
Thousands more have received pistol purchase permits through the sheriff's office.
To be approved, you have to pass a background check, but critics say our state's gun permit system is antiquated and ineffective.
In North Carolina, you have to go through the sheriff to buy a hand gun. The New Hanover County Sheriff's Office runs all applicants through the NICS system - the FBI's National Instant Background Check Service that includes information on criminal records and involuntary commitments for mental problems.
For concealed carry applicants, the New Hanover County Sheriff's also does record checks with three local mental health providers: Coastal Care, Wilmington Treatment Center, and New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
But New Hanover County Sheriff's Sergeant Jerry Brewer acknowledges there are still blind spots.
"In reality, could you put in an application for a pistol permit purchase or a carry conceal and have mental records in another state and us never be able to discover those? Yes, it's true," explained Brewer.
While the NICS system has some information on involuntary commitments, there is not federal law requiring states to submit that data. North Carolina law requires clerks of court here to enter all involuntary commitment information into the national database, but that's not the case everywhere.
Moreover, beyond involuntary commitment information, there is no national database with comprehensive mental health records.
Gun experts say most states rely solely on the NICS system for background checks at the point of sale, which provides instant up-to-date background information. Critics say North Carolina's system involving sheriff-issued permits actually takes us a step backward.
"It is archaic. It doesn't work, it is arbitrary, and we would like to see the law repealed," said gun rights advocate Paul Valone. "If we repeal the law, then we could rely solely on the National Instant Check System at the point of sale for firearm transfers."
The problem is this: gun dealers don't have to do a NICS background check when a buyer presents a pistol permit or concealed carry permit, because the permit means the sheriff already did one.
Those permits are good for five years, so they don't necessarily provide dealers with current information on the purchaser's criminal or mental health history.
To address that issue, a new state law requires the sheriff to revoke a permit if a permit holder is later convicted of a felony, but in reality, that can be difficult to enforce.
Another big point of contention - you need a permit for a handgun in North Carolina, but not a shotgun or rifle. That means you could have a history of mental health problems and bypass the background check when buying a long gun.
Authorized dealers are required to do a NICS check for people buying any type of gun, but long guns can be purchased from private collectors at gun shows and flea markets without any kind of background check.
Each of North Carolina's 100 sheriffs has his own criteria for pistol purchase and concealed carry permits, and some of them make it harder to get a permit than others.
In Brunswick County, the sheriff checks with local mental health providers for new and renewal concealed carry applications - but in Pender County, only new applicants get that screening.
Gun rights advocates say despite the inconsistencies and questionable effectiveness - efforts to repeal the pistol purchase laws in North Carolina have been met with fierce resistance from the powerful sheriff's lobby.
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