MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. (Sarah Skinner/Charlotte Observer) - For the first 42 years of his life, David Yamane never touched a gun. But the Wake Forest University professor is now among North Carolina’s concealed-carry permit holders, whose numbers have more than tripled since he first nervously pulled a trigger in 2010.
State Bureau of Investigations data show that the number of permits rose from 177,787 in 2010 to 647,553 this Jan. 1.
Yamane doesn’t just shoot guns — he studies them too. As a sociology professor at Wake Forest, he researches gun culture and policy in today’s America.
“It’s not just the population increase,” Yamane said, referring to the roughly 1 million new North Carolinians this decade. “The interest in concealed carry is increasing too.”
Concealed-carry permits, which have to be renewed every five years, let the holder bear non-visible handguns in all legal spaces in North Carolina. More than 38,000 Mecklenburg County residents hold permits.
North Carolina passed its comprehensive concealed-carry law in 1995, requiring permit applicants to be certified before they can carry handguns tucked away in their bags, purses, cars and hidden belt holsters.
The process involves an eight-hour course and a firing test to see if the applicant can wield a weapon correctly. It requires a criminal and mental health background check and costs a few hundred dollars.
More than 600,000 N.C. residents have undergone that process. At about eight percent of the state’s population, that represented the 10th-highest rate in the nation in 2017. Mecklenburg County, like many urban areas, has a lower concealed-carry rate of about 3.7 percent of the population.
The number of permit holders has increased every year since the law passed, but unevenly. The biggest jumps for Mecklenburg and the state came in 2008-2009 and 2013.
Why? The political climate in those years, experts said.
“People have talked about (Barack) Obama being the greatest gun salesman in the history of America,” Yamane said.
Though the former president never introduced legislation to strip citizens of their guns, the 2008 election of a Democratic president who touted gun control inspired owners to fear for their firearms, he said. That fear bred stockpiling of guns and more permit applications.
Jeffrey Welty, a professor of criminal law and procedure at UNC Chapel Hill, said that North Carolina also has a long-standing and unusually strong state Supreme Court case protecting open carry of guns. Welty said that case makes gun ownership more common.
High-profile, catastrophic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, C.T., in December 2012 and an Orlando nightclub in 2016 pushed citizens to see danger all around them, Yamane said. Concealed-carry application rates jumped in the years directly following each event.
“These things go hand-in-hand,” he said. If you can be attacked anywhere, Yamane said, people want their guns with them anywhere they go.
States make their own concealed-carry laws, which run the gamut from in-depth permit procedures to none at all.
“Constitutional carry” states such as Idaho, Arizona and West Virginia draw on a belief that the Second Amendment is all the gun legislation that’s needed. With no permitting process, concealed and open carry are effectively the same.
North Carolina, as a “shall-issue” state, prompts its sheriffs to issue concealed-carry permits to any applicant unless there’s a glaring reason not to, such as a felony conviction.
“We have some good laws in place,” said Becky Ceartas, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence. “There’s always room for improvement.”
This year, state legislators considered a measure similar to practices in nine other states that would leave it to the sheriff’s discretion whether to issue a concealed-carry permit. “Law enforcement officials know that community best,” said Ceartas, whose group supported the move.
Gun proponents like N.C. blogger Sean Sorrentino often disagree, arguing that strict guidelines keep police and big government in check. He prefers the current system, but would ideally have no concealed-carry permitting system at all.
North Carolina also requires separate permits to buy handguns — unless the applicant is already approved for concealed carry. Pistol purchase permits cost $5 and are obtained through the local sheriff’s office. Yamane said that they are another reason why concealed carry is so popular in North Carolina.
The permitting process is a good step in monitoring who can obtain weapons, Ceartas said. One or both permits is needed even in private sales between citizens.
Zoics Hapman is a Charlotte-area hobbyist gun collector who sells antique rifles and handguns online.
Hapman posts disclaimers in bold type on every listing stating that he’ll sell only to people with both a pistol purchase permit and a concealed carry card, although only one is required by law. He said he still gets offers from people with neither.
“Do they find other (sellers)?” He laughed. “Yeah. Oh, yeah.”
Despite widespread protests calling for stricter gun control, Sorrentino, the blogger, and Yamane said guns are considered “normal” in North Carolina.
“It seems a little strange, and possibly even dangerous and antisocial, until you find out that the very nice real estate agent in your social group carries a gun because she once got attacked while showing a house,” Sorrentino said.
Yamane’s story echoes that idea. He grew up in “blue bubble” California, and attended the University of California, Berkeley, for a degree in sociology.
In California, Yamane said, he didn’t think about firearms. North Carolina was different: “Everyone around me had guns.”
Over 28 percent of North Carolinians own a firearm, a 2015 BMJ study found. Rifles are sold at stores like Walmart with nothing more than a government-issued ID and a background check at the counter.
Yamane arranged to take his first shot at a local shooting range in 2010, just to see how it felt. He booked an appointment, listened to the safety instructions and carefully cocked the rifle.
He enjoyed it, he said, and was interested in learning more, in part because he had once had an uncomfortable encounter with an enraged man while toting his kids through his apartment complex.