CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rodney Garner was out in Charlotte looking to purchase his first gun.
“Myself and my wife, we’ve been thinking about it for a while,” Garner said. “You know a lot of things are going on now in the world.”
To get a gun permit in Mecklenburg County, there is a wait.
“It takes 10 days in California, six to seven weeks in Mecklenburg and now were hearing it might be six months,” said Larry Hyatt, gun store owner. “It’s totally unacceptable.”
Hyatt runs one of the busiest gun stores in the country. But there is nothing busy about a shelf in his store.
“These are handguns on hold while people are waiting for their permits,” Hyatt said while pointing at guns. “And this is just the G’s and H’s. There is almost 500 handguns waiting for permits.”
The number of permit requests flowing through the clerk’s office has been consistent, averaging 130 per month. But then in December, the number exploded to more than 2,000. And last month it was more than 2,500.
So what happened? What changed in December? Two things really.
The terror strike in San Bernardino, California and a new gun law took effect December 1 in North Carolina that requires mental health background checks for all instead of just some.
The battle to change the law was intense. Legislators argued and fought. And argued and fought some more. For months it seemed like nothing would get done. But then there was a compromise.
Part of that compromise gave sheriffs only 14 days to approve or deny permits. The problem is the mental health checks have been taking far longer than two weeks.
“So it kind of puts us in a dilemma,” said Sheriff Irwin Carmichael, Mecklenburg County. “So we go ahead and issue permits and let everyone know in 14 days or wait till we get all of this medical information back? I’m always going to err on the side of safety.”
Translation: the new law is forcing the sheriff to break the law to keep the public safe.
“We want to make sure the guns are in the right people’s hands and that’s why we have to have these checks,” Carmichael said.
If someone is looking for the bottleneck, the judicial hospitalization unit of the clerk’s office would be it. But before someone gets mad, consider what they have to work with. Most of it is last century’s record keeping system.
“What you will see here is microfilm records dating back to 1969,” Mecklenburg County Clerk Elsa Chinn-Gary said. “So we have a limited database. It requires us to actually go back to old microfilm, go back to CDs and actually go back to paper logs to look for names.”
“The sheriff or the clerk of court, if they issue one document and they miss one person with a mental problem, they are going to be crucified,” Hyatt said. “So they are really diligent trying to do it, but they don’t have a good way to do it. It’s a system that’s just now working.”
When the legislature changed the law, the clerk’s resources stayed the same. Senator Jeff Tarte, who helped nurse the gun law through the Senate, says lawmakers may need to look at some of the law’s unintended complications.
“Are we burdening them to a point they don’t have staff to respond quickly? Are the information systems in place?” Tarte said. “We’re going to have to do some homework and make sure we’re in a reasonable timeline.”
“Well, we have $200,000 to $300,000 tied up just waiting on permits and it’s getting worse, not better,” Hyatt said.
Hyatt and prospective gun owners may have to wait until April for relief. That’s when the legislature goes into session.