CHARLOTTE — More than 60 people who hold active Mecklenburg County permits to buy handguns have been convicted of felonies, some involving guns, a Charlotte Observer data analysis shows.
Five were convicted of robbery with a dangerous weapon, three of manslaughter, two of firing into occupied property and one of second-degree murder. Others were convicted of assaults that left victims badly injured or of using weapons to attack government officials.
The Observers analysis also found about 230 permit holders with drug convictions, including dozens of people with multiple convictions. North Carolina law says permit holders cant use or be addicted to illegal drugs.
The findings which come from gun data the state legislature is seeking to close to the public reveal a faulty permitting system that fails to detect newly convicted criminals or to give law enforcement the authority to revoke gun permits.
Government-issued permits are the only legal way to buy handguns in North Carolina. All felons, except some white-collar criminals, are barred from owning guns.
To get the $5 permits, an applicant must pass a limited background check by a county sheriff thats designed to weed out felons and others who cant own guns.
In all but one case, the felons who turned up in the Charlotte Observers analysis committed their crimes after getting a permit. Critics say thats when problems emerge.
Permits are good for five years long enough for a person to be convicted, serve time and be released without ever having to surrender a gun permit.
Unlike other states, North Carolina lets a permit substitute for a background check at the gun shop. Presented with a permit, a dealer has no way of knowing whether the buyer committed a felony after receiving it.
Sheriffs also are left in the dark. The court system doesnt alert them when permit holders are convicted of felonies, and the law gives sheriffs no authority to revoke permits and no sweeping authority to confiscate guns.
Theres no mechanism and no way I can go get it, Mecklenburg County Sheriff Chipp Bailey said of the permits.
Anything we can do to keep the public safe, Im in favor of that. I just dont know logistically how were going to do that.
Because gun dealers dont report their sales to any agency or database, law enforcement agencies cant know whether permits are actually used to buy guns.
And because there is no statewide database of permits, North Carolinas 100 sheriffs cant share what they know with their colleagues.
Suzanne Rallis Conway, who leads a North Carolina chapter of Moms Demand Action, said its alarming that felons can keep their permits.
Im dumbfounded that actually happens, she said. Thats frightening to me, if thats the case. I thought North Carolina was more with it than that.
At least 10 of the felons with permits the Observer found are still in jail. Others are on probation or parole.
Records could be closed
Felons comprise a tiny slice of Mecklenburg Countys 35,000 people with gun permits. But their numbers would go undetected if a proposal to conceal the identities of permit holders is enacted by the General Assembly.
Currently, the names and addresses of permit holders are public records.
The N.C. House passed a measure in March that would close to the public the names of who owns a county handgun permit or a concealed carry permit. The bill is now before a Senate committee.
One of the bills sponsors, Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, said the measure is a reaction to what gun-rights advocates call misuse of public records by the news media. Publishing names and addresses of gun owners, he said, makes them targets for theft.
Youre doing what law enforcement should be doing, Hager said of the Observers finding that criminals hold gun permits. Law enforcement in every county in the state should be able to find that same information.
A private matter
Earlier this month, California passed a law allowing police to confiscate guns from people who acquired the weapons legally but were later convicted of certain crimes or treated for a serious mental illness.
Paul Valone, president of the gun-rights group Grass Roots North Carolina, challenged the Observers findings because its unknown whether felons with permits actually bought guns with them.
Unless you prove to me that theres a problem, that firearms are being used in crimes or theres another compelling interest, its a private matter, he said.
Applications for Mecklenburg gun permits, meanwhile, are soaring.
About 12,000 applications have been filed over nine months so far this fiscal year, a 27 percent increase over all of 2008.