Durham County officials are awaiting a ruling from the state on what to do with tens of thousands of gun owners’ personal information now that the county’s Jim Crow-era gun registry has been repealed in a “very large” legislative victory.
“I have asked that question to the people in Raleigh at the Administrative Office of the Courts, and they are researching it, and they are supposed to get back to me to let me know what’s going to happen with these,” said Cindy Buchanan, Durham County assistant clerk of court/head cashier. “So right now I don’t have an answer.”
A local legislative bill created Durham County’s gun roll, the only firearm registration system in North Carolina, in 1935.
State Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, introduced a local bill that was passed into law June 18 abolishing the registration requirement. Because it was a local bill, it became law without the governor’s signature after passing both chambers of the General Assembly.
“We’ve got an alert going out right now to have people contact the county commission to demand these records be destroyed,” said Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, a nonprofit gun rights organization.
“If that doesn’t work, I suppose we need to look into legal action. Gun registration is not legal in North Carolina, period, end of story,” Valone said.
“Right now, they’re back here in my office under lock and key,” Buchanan said of the gun registrations. “I’ve got two big filing cabinets full.”
She said it’s difficult to tell how many gun registrations were entered every year, and she did not know how many are contained in the filing cabinets. “It’s not on any kind of database as far as a computer, and it doesn’t keep any running account,” Buchanan said. “It’s all done by paper,” and forms are filed alphabetically, not by year.
When registering, a gun owner would bring in information on the gun, fill out the paperwork, and get an old-fashioned carbon copy, with the original going into the county files.
Buchanan said she is not aware of any government use for the registrations, nor did she know of any law enforcement agencies cross-referencing gun permit purchases to make sure gun owners were complying with the registration law. She declined to speculate if the law was effective.
“Since we issue the concealed carry and pistol permits, we made everybody aware of the law that you were required to register your firearm under state law,” said Durham County Sheriff’s Maj. Paul Martin, who oversees concealed carry permitting for the sheriff’s office.
“But that [registration] law has never been enforced as far as I know,” Martin said. “That’s not the sheriff’s domain.”
Martin is not convinced that the records should be destroyed. One value of keeping them is that they contain serial numbers for guns. Those identifiers are not collected on gun permits.
So if a gun were stolen and the owner didn’t know the serial number, it could be retrieved from the registry, Martin said. Likewise, if a stolen gun were recovered, it could be traced to the owner through the registry.
“It’s not a computerized system, it’s 79 years old, and as far as I can tell there’s more than 40,000 pieces of paper up there” that would have to be sifted through individually to find the right registration document without knowing the owner’s name, Martin said.
Woodard did not respond to requests for comment.
Valone called Woodard’s repeal legislation “a very large, symbolic victory” that eluded his organization in its past attempts to get it passed.
Those attempts failed because the General Assembly has a tradition of not moving a local bill without a legislator from that jurisdiction sponsoring it.
“Quite frankly, given the political orientation of legislators in Durham County, we could never find a sponsor,” Valone said.
“Fortunately, Sen. Woodard stepped up and did the right thing in repealing what was originally passed as a Jim Crow law,” Valone said. He and Martin said the catalyst for the 1935 legislation was some two dozen murders in one year at illegal liquor houses.
“I don’t understand why a registration law would have had any impact on that,” Valone said. “My suspicion is that it just allowed the sheriff to keep an eye on people, and the sort of people he was keeping an eye on at that point were people of color.”
Once Woodard set his repeal bill in motion, Grass Roots North Carolina “provided impetus to make sure it got a floor vote,” Valone said.
Durham County’s gun registration made it the only place in North Carolina exempt from a statewide pre-emption law passed in 1995 prohibiting any local government from adopting gun laws more stringent than state statutes.
Pre-emption is a vital gun owner protection, Valone said.
“The reason for that is that you don’t want to go through, say, Chapel Hill with a handgun in your car and become a criminal because you didn’t know they had a handgun ban in Chapel Hill back in the early 1990s,” Valone said. “Pre-emption allowed law-abiding gun owners to remain law-abiding” throughout the state.
Durham County’s gun registration law “has been a large loophole in pre-emption,” Valone said. “If push came to shove, if you or I drove through the City of Durham without registering our handgun with the Clerk of Superior Court, we were guilty of a crime,” Valone said. “The law did not require you to be a resident to register your gun in Durham,” only possessing it.
Dan Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.