North Carolina's Senate voted Thursday to scrap a requirement that a sheriff formally sign off before a person is able to legally purchase a handgun, as part of a broader firearms bill.
The Republican senators approved the legislation 29-19 in a party-line vote.
The firearms bill would also allow people with a concealed weapons permit — separate from the pistol purchase permit — to carry a gun while attending religious services at a private school or some charter schools. Permitted gun owners can already carry at standalone church buildings if the congregation allows it.
The measure, which also creates and funds a two-year education campaign on the safe storage of firearms, contains "common-sense laws to ensure that the rights of law-abiding citizens are not being infringed," Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican and chief sponsor, said in a press release.
Using parliamentary maneuvers, GOP senators blocked floor votes on several proposed Democratic amendments to tighten gun laws, such as universal background checks for all weapon sales and "red-flag" orders. Senate Democrats, who would support the safe storage campaign language if voted on in separate legislation, said Thursday the permit repeal would lead to more gun injuries and deaths at a time of increased mass shootings.
The bill "is the antithesis of common-sense gun reform," Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, during floor debate. "It's a relinquishment of our job to protect North Carolinians from violence."
In 2021, separate bills containing the pistol permit repeal and gun access within more houses of worship passed the General Assembly but were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. He said at the time that educators and children need protections from gun violence and the permit system reduces gun-related deaths.
But Republicans made enough seat gains during the November elections so that the GOP holds a veto-proof majority in the Senate and are within one seat of similar control in the House.
The House advanced these proposals this week in their own competing measures. The bill addressing religious meeting places passed the full House chamber on Wednesday with the support of six Democrats — signaling that any veto override of a measure on that specific topic this year could be successful. GOP leaders in both chambers will have to hash out which of the gun bills they want to put on Cooper's desk.
Thursday's Senate debate centered on the repeal of the pistol permit purchase system, which dates back over a century. GOP lawmakers and other gun-rights advocates call the system outdated and duplicative in light of robust comprehensive national checks that federally-licensed gun dealers must conduct. Concealed weapons permits would still be required.
But Democrats said a repeal would create a large loophole: Background checks aren't mandatory for private gun sales between two individuals. They pointed to what they call the relative ease to purchase firearms through non-licensed dealers on the internet.
The sheriff's permit, they say, still blocks additional people with a history of violence, such as people with pending criminal cases, from being able to purchase weapons. State law directs the sheriff, who performs state and national background checks, to evaluate the applicant's character and to ensure the gun will be used lawfully.
Britt said national figures show a very small percentage of firearms sales are private sales.
"The question really is in some respects balancing folks' Second Amendment rights with those concerns," Senate leader Phil Berger told reporters after the vote. "We do not believe that the concerns that have been raised are concerns that play out."
The North Carolina Sheriffs' Association backs the repeal, although its current president doesn't.
Berger and other gun-rights allies said there are lengthy waits in some counties for sheriffs to decide on permit applications. They also argue the 1919 permit law was initially used during the Jim Crow era to prevent Black people from obtaining weapons. Repeal opponents say the permit requirement today isn't racial discriminatory.
"This bill is about making our communities less safe and has absolutely nothing to do with racial equality," said Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham County Democrat who is Black. "It will in fact make Black communities less safe."
While North Carolinians Against Gun Violence expressed in a statement "deep disappointment" for the passage of the permit repeal, the gun-rights group Grass Roots North Carolina praised senators.
Grass Roots NC sent open letters to Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore last month reminding them of the group's campaigning for candidates, designed to create Republican majorities able to override Cooper's gun-related vetoes.