In the light of the recent repeal of the pistol permit requirement in N.C. and the political targeting of conservatives by federal alphabet agencies, it seems an appropriate time to address the felony firearms laws in our state.  

The N.C. Supreme Court made the right decision regarding felon voting rights by determining that the citizen convicted of a felony must have their rights restored, in a manner determined by the General Assembly, before exercising that right. In the case of voting, this simply means that all conditions of the sentence have been met — in colloquial terms, that the “debt has been paid.”

It is interesting to note that until 1970 that was the standard for all felony disenfranchisement in N.C., including exercising the Second Amendment right to self defense. 

In his article “A Fighting Chance for Outlaws: Strict Scrutiny of North Carolina’s Felony Firearms Act,” written for Campbell Law in 2010, attorney Matthew Cochran gets to the heart of the issue by reviewing the legislative history of N.C. felony law and the steady erosion of gun rights that ensued.  

Under cover of the war on drugs and then the Patriot Act, the N.C. legislature went on a 40-year rampage against the right to defend life and liberty in the guise of public safety. It is time for the General Assembly to address this issue and recognize the rights of individuals who have already paid their debts to society. The 40 years of political posturing that made our state neither safer nor freer need to be redressed.

In Britt v. North Carolina (Aug. 28, 2009), the court held that G.S. 14-415.1 (felon in possession), as applied to the plaintiff, was unconstitutional. By making the case “as applied,” the court dropped the ball on confronting this trend toward disenfranchisement. When felony firearms law is considered, there emerges a pattern that mirrors the pistol permit law, namely racial biases in the formation of the law. Most studies on the history of felony firearm laws acknowledge the historic tie to keeping “dangerous persons” (i.e. black and Native American residents) from obtaining firearms.

So we have to ask if the current laws are narrowly tailored as drafted. Do they address known crimes in effective ways? Do they preserve the individual liberty of North Carolinians?

When the first felony firearms act came about in 1970, it was introduced to align N.C. laws with the federal Gun Control Act of 1968. It is interesting to note that at that point, the General Assembly did not assume the power to issue a blanket prohibition to “felons” on the possession of firearms but merely while they were completing their sentence.

The few times the statute was amended initially were to preserve the right to self-defense. It wasn’t until the crime bill of 1995 that N.C. again tried to mimic the federal law. Without regard to actual outcomes, N.C.G.S. § 14-415.1 was modified to deny in perpetuity the right to own a handgun. It is instructive that even at that point the G.A. didn’t believe a citizen should be barred from a firearm completely, but only handguns.

The next leap was following the federal Patriot Act, when N.C. decided that all felons are dangerous and retroactively unable to exercise their right to self-defense. So in 2005, a complete ban on gun ownership was enacted for felons, no matter how long ago your debt was paid. In 2010, an amendment adding a mechanism for having rights restored was included in the law. This mechanism brought little relief though, because the person had to wait 20 years after completion of his sentence before he could petition to have his rights restored.

What we have seen over time is a continual restricting of the rights with no corresponding results. In attempts to align our laws with those of the federal government, we have disarmed our citizens while not making them safer. As Cochran points out, our legislature is capable of narrowly tailoring laws to have actual effect rather than just political appeal.

The problem with “felons” and firearms is that they make a convenient target for the political posturing on every side of the aisle. My fellow conservatives should consider whether matching federal law or defending the individual liberty of North Carolinians is our goal. As we see daily, the federal bureaucracy can easily be used for political purposes. It is not hard to imagine a world where normal conservative views and values are felonious behavior. What then?

The state has a compelling interest in crafting laws that protect its citizens, punish criminal behavior, and preserve life and limb. It has an equally compelling duty to protect the rights of its citizens from the coercive power of tyrannical laws without prejudice or favor and to limit the influence of the state in the life of the individual.

The failure to recognize the dangers of blanket felony laws will only harm conservatism as a viable political philosophy. Do we have the political will and personal integrity to distinguish between Martha Stewart and a repeat violent offender? Let’s get back to a time when we trusted citizens who have made mistakes and paid for them to reclaim their full freedoms and responsibilities.