Wake sheriff suspends pistol permit purchases, but does it violate state laws?

Wake County sheriff Gerald Baker. Photo from Wake County Sheriff's Office

RALEIGH — Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker announced on March 24 that his office was temporarily suspending pistol purchase permits through April 30.

“This decision does not limit anyone’s right to purchase a handgun,” said Baker in a press release. “Over the past several weeks, our staff has been inundated with high volumes of permit applications that has made it impossible to process by law. This decision is not a violation of anyone’s Second Amendment rights.

Baker went on to say that “this action will limit persons encountering one another during this time of State of Emergency, consistent with Governor Roy Cooper’s executive orders and that of Wake County commissioner Greg Ford.”

The press release asserts that “North Carolina General Statutes 14-403 and 404 only requires the sheriff issues a permit to purchase a firearm but sets no timeframe for when applications must be taken by the sheriff’s office.”

Questions about the legality of Baker’s action began surfacing almost immediately. One of the first to counter Baker’s claims was Republican Congressman Dan Bishop, who represents the ninth Congressional district and served for three terms in the General Assembly.

“State statute mandates the issuance or denial (on grounds specific to the applicant) of a permit within 14 days. The sheriff is blanket-denying all applications under color of law.  Blatant denial of 2A rights under color of law. Civil rights claim: 42 USC Sec. 1983,” tweeted Bishop.

In the state of North Carolina, firearm and ammunition sales cannot legally be limited or restricted by municipalities or counties even under a declared state of emergency.

Senators Warren Daniel (R-Burke) and Danny Britt (R-Robeson) issued a joint statement demanding Baker rescind his decision and stating that North Carolina requires sheriffs to approve or reject a pistol permit within 14 days.

“Sheriff Baker must immediately rescind his illegal decision to halt sale of pistols in Wake County,” said Sens. Daniel and Britt. “People are already suspicious and on edge. It’s reckless to illegally suspend their Second Amendment rights just when they need assurance that they can trust government.”

“We will also be urging our colleagues in the legislature to take action during the short session to address this illegal behavior,” Daniel and Britt said.

The 2012 case Bateman v. Perdue in federal court challenged North Carolina’s legal definition of “dangerous weapons” during a declared state of emergency. That definition included such items as handguns, rifles, and shotguns. The court found the statutes in question to be unconstitutional and the North Carolina General Assembly repealed them effective October 1, 2012.

The day after the Wake County sheriff’s announcement, Grass Roots North Carolina (GRNC) issued a press release denouncing Baker’s actions and that the group was considering legal action. GRNC was a plaintiff in Bateman v. Perdue. GRNC is a 501c4 non-profit that educates the public on the United States Constitution and in particular Second Amendment Rights and North Carolina firearm laws.

“Under the emergency powers management act, nothing gives the sheriff the power to shut down the issuance of pistol purchase permits,” GRNC president Paul Valone told North State Journal.

“It would be a pretty tortured argument to say that the sheriff has to issue a permit within 14 days of the application, but he’s not taking any applications, so it doesn’t apply,” said Valone, adding he finds it unlikely that argument would hold up in court.

“When Baker said this doesn’t restrict our right to purchase firearms, that’s ridiculous because, under North Carolina law, you cannot buy a handgun without a pistol purchase permit,” Valone said.

GRNC’s press release included legal analysis of Baker’s action suspending pistol permit purchases (PPP) from its director of legal affairs, Edward Green.

“The sheriff of every county in NC shall issue a PPP to a law-abiding citizen of good moral character within 14 days. This is state law,” Green wrote. “The sheriff’s office has no discretion in accepting applications or processing them. If an investigation uncovers a specific, statutorily enumerated reason an applicant should not receive a PPP, the sheriff must list such reason – and the statute – in writing – also within 14 days.”

According to the Wake County Sheriff’s Office, there are currently 755 applications pending. The sheriff’s office says that the Wake County Clerk of Court doesn’t have enough staff to keep up with the required background checks on applicants in order to statutorily meet the 14-day requirement.

“With 290 people coming into the permits office per day, the sheriff’s office would not be able to meet the 14-day requirement,” added Sheriff Baker.

Baker’s press release claims that by suspending operations, the Wake County Clerk of Court can then catch and process that backlog of pending applications.

Green continued, stating that a “high workload by the sheriff’s staff is not a reason for refusal to issue a PPP” and that “suspension of accepting, processing, and issuing PPPs is facially unlawful.”

In addition, Green said that such a suspension “effectively bans residents of Wake County from engaging in conduct that is at the very core of the Second Amendment at a time when the need for self-defense may be at its very greatest.”

“The Sheriff must rescind this illegal policy immediately,” wrote Green.

The actions by Sheriff Baker appear to be happening in varying degrees in other counties.

Camden County is not accepting new applications for handgun purchase permits, concealed carry permits, or fingerprinting until Tuesday, March 31, 2020, and on March 23, Camden’s administrative offices were “closed to the public.”

The Gates County Sheriff’s Office closed to public traffic on March 16, 2020, and remains closed “until further notice.”

Harnett County announced on March 19 that it had “suspended jail visitations, pistol permits, concealed carry permits, fingerprint services or any other service that requires your presence until further notice.”

The suspension of fingerprinting services has occurred in a number of locations which include, but are not limited to, Alamance, Anson, Carteret Catawba, Columbus, Gates, Guilford, Lincoln, Randolph, Robeson Counties and by the Sunset Beach police department.

Many of the counties suspending fingerprinting are also only processing pistol purchase permits online.

Carteret County has suspended all “non-essential fingerprinting services” including fingerprinting for new concealed carry weapon applications but renewals are still being processed and PPP applications are only being processed online.

The Cumberland County sheriff’s office has closed its gun permits office to the public until further notice. Purchase permits and concealed handgun permits can be applied for online but there is no in-person pick-up option at this time.

About A.P. Dillon 297 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_