MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. -- More than 60 people who hold active Mecklenburg County permits to buy handguns have been convicted of felonies, some involving guns, an 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 Observer’s analysis also found about 230 permit holders with drug convictions, including dozens of people with multiple convictions. North Carolina law says permit holders can’t use or be addicted to illegal drugs.
The findings – which come from gun data the N.C. General Assembly 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 that’s designed to weed out felons and others who can’t own guns.
In all but one case, the felons who turned up in the Observer analysis committed their crimes after getting a permit. Critics say that’s 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 doesn’t 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.
“There’s 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, I’m in favor of that. … I just don’t know logistically how we’re going to do that.”
Because gun dealers don’t report their sales to any agency or database, law enforcement agencies can’t know whether permits are actually used to buy guns.
And because there is no statewide database of permits, North Carolina’s 100 sheriffs can’t share what they know with their colleagues.
Suzanne Rallis Conway, who leads a North Carolina chapter of Moms Demand Action, said it’s alarming that felons can keep their permits.
“I’m dumbfounded that actually happens,” she said. “That’s frightening to me if that’s 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.
Violent criminals who hold permits include:
• Christopher Blake Pham, 25, who pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in 2009 after a fight that left his friend, Andrew Guilfoyle, dead from a gunshot wound to the head. Pham’s three years of probation ended in November, but his right to own a gun was not restored.
Despite that, the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office still lists an active permit in Pham’s name. The office has issued him three permits in all, records show.
“I’m absolutely in shock,” said Jill Alsip, Guilfoyle’s mother. “Anybody who’s convicted of a felony, especially if they’re involved with a crime involving a weapon, that should be one of the first things the sheriff should check.”
• Tommy Sanders Williamson, 34, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to possessing a sawed-off shotgun, assault with serious injury and attempted common-law robbery. He was placed under supervised probation for 36 months.
Court records show Williamson has a history of mental health treatment and drug abuse, and was evaluated to determine his ability to stand trial. He has secured 19 gun purchase permits from Mecklenburg County, at least one of which is still active.
• Denise LaTasha Baldwin, 32, who “appeared to have some sort of mental disability,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers noted in September 2009 after they said she tried to shoot a man.
Baldwin was convicted of firing a gun inside city limits and assault with a deadly weapon, both misdemeanors that don’t prohibit gun ownership. A judge sentenced her to 18 months’ probation and ordered Baldwin to undergo a mental health assessment and surrender her firearms and gun permit.
But Baldwin still has an active permit, records show. She’s among dozens of people convicted of violent misdemeanors in Mecklenburg County who do.
The Observer was unable to reach those permit holders or their families.
Records could soon be closed
Felons constitute a tiny slice of the county’s 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 bill’s 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.
“You’re doing what law enforcement should be doing,” Hager said of the Observer’s finding that criminals hold gun permits. “Law enforcement in every county in the state should be able to find that same information.”
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 Observer’s findings because it’s unknown whether felons with permits actually bought guns with them.
“Unless you prove to me that there’s a problem, that firearms are being used in crimes or there’s another compelling interest, it’s 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.
Proposals to fix the flaws
On the rare occasions when Mecklenburg officials learn a permit holder has been convicted of a felony, the Sheriff’s Office sends a letter saying the permit has been suspended and must be surrendered.
“Under current law, they can’t come out and take the gun back,” said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association. “That’s a problem – if you have a permit and later get convicted of something.”
A bill co-sponsored by Rep. Henry Michaux Jr., D-Durham, would let sheriffs revoke a permit if the holder is convicted of a crime that would have barred him or her from getting the permit.
The bill is in the House Rules Committee.
“Not being able to revoke those permits is about as bad as not revoking a drunk driver’s license,” Michaux said. “If that’s what you’ve got in Mecklenburg County ... suppose you start digging in the other 99 counties?”
Although the bill does not address the communications gap between the courts and the sheriff, Superior Court Judge Hugh Lewis said he wondered whether the courts should inquire about a permit after a felony conviction.
Lewis presided over Baldwin’s case.
“You’re making me start to think about should we as judges … ask that additional question – do you have a gun permit?” Lewis said. “I think it’s something that needs to be looked at further.”
In some cases, authorities can retrieve guns.
Probation officers are required to search a convict’s home within the first 60 days of supervision to ensure felons don’t have guns, the N.C. Department of Public Safety says. Officers can also search, without warrants, the homes of people who are on probation or under post-prison supervision.
Four people from Mecklenburg County who were convicted of robbery with a dangerous weapon have been released from prison under supervision since December. They still have gun permits, data show.
Gail Neely, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, said reducing the life of a permit – from five years to two years, for example – would cut down on gun sales to recently convicted felons.
“As long as that person has that card in his possession, as far as the dealer knows, it’s a legal sale,” Neely said. “They need to take that paper away from them.”
Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford, sponsored a bill that would shorten the life of a gun permit to three years. The bill has been before the House Rules Committee since mid-April.
Adams said shortening the life of a permit was important, but she doubts that any bill increasing gun control would pass this year’s legislature.
“If we take a look at who has them (permits) a little more frequently than we do, I think it would solve some of the problems,” she said. “In that five-year span, things happen, and we don’t always know about it.”