Gun-rights groups sue NC sheriff for delays in issuing gun permits

The Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office says an 'unprecedented increase' in applications has led to a deep backlog

By Jonathan Limehouse
The Charlotte Observer

MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — Gun rights organizations and three Mecklenburg County residents filed a lawsuit Thursday against Sheriff Garry McFadden and his office for failing to issue pistol purchase and concealed handgun permits in a timely manner.

Gun Owners of America, Gun Owners Foundation, Grass Roots North Carolina, Rights Watch International and the three residents filed the lawsuit in Mecklenburg County Superior Court.

The lawsuit claims that McFadden’s failure to timely issue permits violates Article I, Section 30 of the North Carolina Constitution, which says “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

“The Sheriff’s actions infringe on the right of the people,’’ according to the lawsuit. “Rights that ‘shall not be infringed.’ ”

North Carolina law requires sheriffs to issue pistol permits within 14 days of the date of the application, and concealed handgun permits within 45 days.

McFadden’s office said in a statement that it couldn’t comment on a lawsuit it hasn’t yet received. But the office added that it has been “transparent and forthcoming about our inability to meet certain statutory timelines” in processing a surge of applications during the COVID-19 pandemic while also coping with staffing shortages.

The Sheriff’s Office is currently processing a backlog of 5,902 purchase permit applications and is working on those received the week of March 19-26, according to its website. The office is processing 5,901 concealed handgun applications and is now reviewing those received the week of Jan. 25-29.

“They’re around seven months behind on concealed handgun permits,” attorney Ronald Shook, who is representing the gun rights groups, told the Observer.

The lawsuit asks a judge to order McFadden’s office to comply with the statutory requirements of state law and immediately issue both permits to qualified applicants.

The suing organizations have heard from members and supporters in Mecklenburg County about their inability to schedule appointments with McFadden’s office for the past seven months, with the earliest available times being in late December, the lawsuit said.

“Grass Roots North Carolina will file as many lawsuits as necessary to make sure that permits are issued on a timely basis,” Paul Valone, the state gun rights group’s president, said at a news conference Thursday.

‘Unprecedented increase’

The Sheriff’s Office said in its statement that it “has seen an unprecedented increase in the number of applications coinciding with the challenges of staff shortages” since early in the pandemic.

Between March and June 2020, it said, the monthly average of pistol permit applications climbed to 4,698, which included an all-time high of approximately 6,425 in June. In comparison, the monthly average pistol permit applications in March and June 2019 was 1,389.

Last November 20, the number of outstanding pistol permit applications peaked at 13,434. The number of outstanding permits on the same date in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was 192.

The timeline for concealed handgun permits the suing groups outlined in the lawsuit is wrong, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Instead of permits being issued within 45 days of the application, McFadden’s office said permits are required to be issued within 45 days from the date the approved application is received from other facilities.

“Sheriff McFadden has personally responded to dozens of emails and taken calls from citizens regarding permit applications and understands the frustration during this process,” his office said.

Similar lawsuit in Wake County

A similar lawsuit was filed in Wake County in March 2020 against Sheriff Gerald Baker for temporarily suspending gun permitting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attorneys for Wake resident Kelly Stafford, Grass Roots North Carolina, and national organizations Second Amendment Foundation and Firearms Policy Coalition filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

The week the lawsuit was filed, Baker announced that his office was suspending pistol purchase permit applications until April 30, 2020 because they were backlogged. Gun sales surged around this time because it was at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit asked a judge to compel Baker’s office to resume accepting the applications. The lawsuit was settled about a month and a half ago and the Sheriff’s Office paid for $25,000 in legal fees and awarded $1,300 to Stafford, Valone said Thursday.

“We hope what takes place is exactly what’s taking place in Wake County,” Valone said. “I get dozens of complaints every week from Mecklenburg County, but the complaints in Wake County have dried to next to nothing. At this point, by all accounts, Sheriff Gerald Baker is issuing permits on a timely basis.”

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