News: CJ Exclusives

Gun-rights group files third COVID-19 lawsuit against Wake County sheriff, alleging illegal permit delays

Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker addresses media on March 26, 2020. (WakeGov.com screen shot)
Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker addresses media on March 26, 2020. (WakeGov.com screen shot)

The demand for firearms, starting with an application for a gun permit, remains high, though local sheriffs’ offices are struggling to keep up.

Grass Roots North Carolina is again suing Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker, the third time since the start of COVID-19 lockdowns. The lawsuits began in March, challenging a move by Baker, who suspended all pistol permit and concealed-carry services for more than a month.

The latest complaint, filed July 31, claims Baker is violating a state statute requiring sheriffs “to issue or deny pistol purchase permits in 14 days, further stipulating that applications may only be denied or statutorily permissible reasons. In truth, applications, if they are being processed at all, are taking nearly two months,” a news release says.

Grassroots N.C. is a nonprofit that works to defend constitutional rights, including the Second Amendment, its website says.

The parties resolved the initial dispute and, a judge ruled, the sheriff’s office would resume accepting and processing applications for pistol permits consistent with N.C. General Statutes.

As part of the judge’s order on the first lawsuit, Baker “agreed to modify the application process so as to minimize or alleviate the admission of applicants for said permits to the Public Safety Center during the term of the current declared states of emergency and to resume processing applications in as timely a fashion as possible under the current conditions.”

But Grassroots N.C., in a news release Monday, Aug. 3, says Baker “may be thumbing his nose at the law: Despite a consent decree requiring him to issue handgun permits, Baker appears to be dragging his feet in order to issue the minimum possible number of permits, clearly defying the decree.”

“Between Jan. 1 and July 24, 18,282 individuals have been approved or have received their permits,” the Wake Sheriff’s Office says in a statement. “During the same period last year, 8,169 permits were approved.”

Grass Roots N.C. President Paul Valone, in a statement, says: “In what is now the third lawsuit filed against Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker over his refusal to follow state law regarding issuing handgun permits, Grass Roots North Carolina intends to ensure citizens’ rights are respected,” 

Lt. Scott Sefton of the sheriff’s office said in March the number of people seeking permits daily has gone from an average of 93 last year to about 290. He said the office had run some 1,250 applications in a week’s time, with more than 750 waiting to be processed at the time.

The permitting backlog isn’t limited to Wake County. 

In Cleveland County, for instance, the number of issued purchase permits has significantly increased in 2020, the Shelby Star reported.

“In June 2019 the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office approved 165 purchase permits. This year they issued 613, a 271 percent increase,” the newspaper says. “In May 2020 they approved some 405 permits, up from 195 in 2019.

Jon Guze, director of legal studies at the John Locke Foundation, in March told Carolina Journal that Baker was in a tough — albeit legally precarious — spot.

“He’s worried about his staff having to interact face-to-face with, and in many cases fingerprint, hundreds of applicants any one of whom could be carrying COVID-19,” Guze said. 

“Concealed carry permits for sure, and ordinary purchase permits too, I think, require the purchaser to appear at the Sheriff’s Office,” Guze said. “It’s not unreasonable to want to avoid dealing face-to-face with hundreds of applicants right now. Nevertheless, as far as I can tell so far, the law is pretty clear. He has to issue within the prescribed time.”

Grass Roots N.C. says it will sue Baker and Wake County as many times as it takes to ensure that handgun permits are reliably issued in compliance with their civil rights and state law. 

In a statement, the Wake County Sheriff’s Office said it “will not litigate pending legal matters in the media. However, Sheriff Baker stands by his decision to protect the health and well-being of this staff and general public during this pandemic.”