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Race, History, and North Carolina’s Handgun Permit Law

  • Date:
  • March 8th, 2023

By: Amir Ali

An effort is currently underway in North Carolina to repeal the state’s requirement that anyone seeking to purchase a handgun first receive a permit from the local sheriff.  The bill passed the house in late February and is on its way to the state senate, but the real question is whether it will garner a veto-proof majority (Governor Roy Cooper vetoed a similar bill that was passed by the legislature in 2021).  The permit-to-purchase law, originally passed in 1919, required that prospective pistol buyers first acquire a permit from the Clerk of the Superior Court in their county and present it to a firearms seller prior to purchasing the weapon.  The law directed the court clerk to determine that the applicant had “good moral character” and that the weapon was needed for the protection of the applicant’s home before granting the permit.  Those same requirements (with some tweaks) remain largely in force in North Carolina today.

Much of the debate over the permit-to-purchase law has centered on the legislative motivations for passing the law in 1919.  Those who wish to see the law repealed argue that it was racially motivated, enacted to prevent Blacks in counties throughout North Carolina from obtaining handguns.  A note published in the North Carolina Law Review in 2021 by then-student Nicholas Gallo is often cited as demonstrating that the permit law was motivated by racial animus.  Gallo traces the history of the Black Codes and New York’s Sullivan Act,[1] and cites a Florida Supreme Court opinion stating that Florida’s similar 1893 permit law was motivated by a desire to disarm Black citizens.  Yet the article does not contain any evidence specific to the actual law enacted in North Carolina in 1919.  Gallo merely asserts that, “despite the North Carolina permit system appearing racially neutral on its face, when taken in context with the actions of surrounding states and the attitudes regarding minorities at the time of enforcement, the permit system’s intention was to keep minorities from possessing handguns.”  For this proposition, he includes the following citation:

North Carolina’s racist history is not limited to guns. During the Jim Crow era, major Ku Klux Klan riots occurred in Wilmington, Fayetteville, Winston Salem, and New Bern. In addition, North Carolina was firmly in the hands of Democrats who kept schools segregated until 1954.

That North Carolina has a history of racist laws and policies in areas other than gun regulation, however, simply doesn’t show one way or the other whether the 1919 permit law was motivated by racial animus. 

The actual historical record is far less clear on what the legislative motivations may have been for the 1919 permit law, and how the law was applied after its enactment.  Legislative history, such as records of debates in the state house and senate, would normally be a primary source of such information—but detailed legislative history for the 1919 permit law does not appear to exist.  Newspapers throughout North Carolina at the time expressed different reasons for supporting passage of the permit-to-purchase law, and these newspapers had certain expectations about what the bill might accomplish.  The granting of permits after the bill’s enactment was also covered sporadically by the press—although these stories are susceptible to different interpretations on the issue of race.

On March 16, 1919, The News & Observer reported the bill had been passed and that the “lessening of the number of homicides in the state and a reduction in injuries from deadly weapons is expected” as a result.  Within two weeks of The News & Observer article, The Oxford Public Ledger, The Cleveland Star, and The Lincoln County News all used the same language to describe the desired and expected effects of the bill (perhaps simply reprinting a version of the earlier News & Observer story).  While these newspapers apparently expected the law to have a salutary impact on public safety, some felt the law did not go far enough.  An editor of The Union Republican from Winston-Salem questioned: “why should a State license the sale of pistols at all?”  He lamented that “the pistol is responsible for two-thirds of murders in North Carolina” and declared that “they should be legislated out of existence.”  In 1928, a contributor wrote to The Charlotte Observer opining that "there should be greater restrictions thrown around promiscuous gun toters" and that permits should be denied to those "addicted to strong drink."  

While many articles focused on the potential safety benefits of the law, The Wilmington Morning Star (in October 1919) suggested a relationship between the law and race.  The paper observed that Wilmington had not faced any “race riots” in part because “there is every reason to believe that the enactment . . . of 1919 . . . has figured largely in the gradually decreasing use of pistols and other death dealing instruments.”  The article could be read to imply that the law was passed in part due to racial tensions which some believed might erupt into violence without strict regulation of handguns generally (the less charitable but equally plausible interpretation, of course, is that the law was beneficial because it was used to ensure that only white citizens would be armed).

As to the enforcement of the law and who actually received permits, the record is also mixed.  A report from The Rockingham Post-Dispatch in April 1920 shows that over one-third of those who had received permits in that area in the first months of the permit system’s operation were Black.  Other articles suggest discrimination on the basis of gender, rather than race.  The Western Sentinel, in Winston-Salem, reported in June 1919 that a clerk had told a female permit applicant that "[f]emales of Buncombe county can not secure permits to buy pistols and other firearms," and that this practice had been “adopted as a policy.”  A story from the Hickory Daily Record potentially lends further support to this idea: of the thirty-six permits issued since the bill had passed, only two were given to women.  The Durham Sun ran a 1930 story summarizing the issuance of pistol permits in Durham since 1919—according to that report, “[f]ew permits were issued to Negroes, the records show, the issuance being restricted almost entirely to white persons.” 

In sum, the historical record indicates a variety of possible motivations for the law, along with potential racial motivations: reducing homicides and injuries, reducing gun violence, and preventing individuals who might misuse handguns from possessing them regardless of race (for example, habitual drinkers).  It’s quite likely that some legislators were motivated in part (or primarily) by racism, but there is little explicit support for this proposition in contemporary newspaper reports.  The enforcement and issuance summaries similarly don’t provide a picture of uniform discrimination or uniform equality; rather, local officials likely applied the law differently in different areas of the state at different times.  Not surprisingly, cities such as Wilmington with a history of racist and white supremacist violence may have associated the law most closely with racialized effects, while other areas of the state did not.

Of course, laws are frequently enacted for multiple and, often, conflicting reasons—and legislation is rarely uncontaminated by baser motivations such as race or religion.  As just one example, the establishment of free public schools in the United States in the mid-late 1800s was driven in part by profound anti-Catholic sentiment.  A facially neutral law can be motivated by race initially but then applied in a non-discriminatory manner, and vice versa.  Actual implementation of a law or policy, moreover, often varies tremendously by time and location.  The only real way to make broad claims about how a facially neutral historical law implicated race is by conducting careful, comprehensive review of the best available historical sources.  Historian Brennan Rivas undertook such research with regard to Texas’ 1871 public carry law and, as one might expect, her project revealed a complicated relationship between that law and race:

We have seen enforcement patterns change over time, influenced by the larger socio-political environment that necessarily shaped local policing and justice. Unlawful carry prosecutions moved from one jurisdiction to another, were treated by some officials as high-priority crimes while being set aside by others — a hallmark of the justice system as true today as it was then. Should we make legal judgments based on legislative intent? Or the initial application of the law? Or the racist practices that developed over time? Which “when” matters most?

Broad statements that North Carolina’s permit law was purely racist or solely intended to disarm Black citizens don’t hold up to close historical scrutiny and often do a disservice to the quality of debate and discussion surrounding modern legislative proposals like the current push to repeal the law.  As Rivas observed in the Texas context, “[i]f we are going to have a Second Amendment jurisprudence driven by history, then we need to prioritize the accuracy of that history; and to do that, we must venture into the proverbial weeds of historical context — almost universally driven by local imperatives, and therefore complicated.”  That same accuracy and nuance is needed in policy discussions as well, and it’s crucial to be open to the possibility that the history is more complex than advocates on either side of the debate might hope.

[1] Patrick Charles has examined in detail on this blog the similar claim that New York’s Sullivan Act was motivated primarily by anti-Italian animus.