RALEIGH, N.C. — Dozens of Second Amendment advocates drove into Raleigh from across the state Wednesday, voicing their objections to proposed rules that would create more oversight of those who train people to carry concealed handguns in the state.
State law enforcement officials say they’ve recently found themselves unable to take action against firearms training instructors who allegedly showed up to teach classes drunk, or allowed people to get a concealed-carry permit without proving they actually knew how to use a gun.
“We have had lots of recent allegations against instructors,” Leslie Dismukes, who leads the state Department of Justice’s criminal bureau, said as she kicked off Wednesday’s public hearing at a Wake Tech public safety training center. She added: “It can be dangerous for all citizens if instructors are not following the rules.”
For that reason the state commission in charge of setting rules for concealed-carry permits now wants instructors to keep more paperwork that will make it easier for state investigators to audit concealed-carry classes, or track down class attendees if needed as witnesses.
Many of the concealed-carry instructors and other pro-gun activists who showed up Wednesday were clear that they opposed giving the government more ability to investigate them — especially if it meant they’d have to keep a list of the people who take their classes, which one of the new rules proposes.
“We are against state and federal regulations as much as possible,” said David McFarling, president of the North Carolina Rifle and Pistol Association. “We have to oppose most of these things just on general principle.”
Politics at play
Like any debate on guns, the opposition was firmly rooted in politics — especially with North Carolina’s 2024 race for governor fast approaching.
“The last thing I’m going to say is: Vote for Mark Robinson for governor,” James Jernigan Jr., a firearms trainer from Harnett County who opposes the proposed rules, said at Wednesday’s hearing.
Robinson, a Republican, is currently the lieutenant governor and widely considered the frontrunner in the GOP primary for governor. He came out of obscurity to become the state’s first Black lieutenant governor in 2020, on the heels of a fiery gun-rights speech he gave that went viral online. He is now a National Rifle Association board member.
On the Democratic side, the frontrunner for that party’s gubernatorial nomination is Attorney General Josh Stein. Stein leads the state DOJ, which helps staff the commission that met Wednesday. He’s not a member of the commission — which is made up of political appointees, many of whom are chosen by the Republican-led General Assembly — and has no direct input on what rules it does or doesn’t come up with.
Nevertheless, Stein’s political opponents sought to use the meeting and the rule proposal to paint Stein as anti-gun. “What we’re talking about is Josh Stein basically creating a gun owner registration list,” Paul Valone, president of the pro-gun group Grass Roots North Carolina, said in an interview before the hearing.
During the hearing Dismukes repeatedly told the audience that the government wouldn’t have automatic access to any lists of concealed carry class attendees that would be mandated by these rules. Investigators could only see the lists as part of an investigation into misconduct. Many in the audience didn’t seem to trust that, with some murmuring “sure” and others demanding to know how they’d have proof of the investigators destroying the lists after the investigation was finished.
Nazneen Ahmed, a state DOJ spokeswoman, noted that Stein wasn’t involved in the drafting of the rules and had not yet formed an opinion on them.
“He has not weighed in on the proposed changes and is interested in hearing feedback from citizens and commissioners,” she said.
And even though the commission that proposed the rules is conservative-leaning — 21 of its 35 members were appointed by the Republican-led General Assembly or various law enforcement groups — many speakers Wednesday wondered if the proposed rules might be a secret ploy for gun control.
“I’m just really concerned,” said Rhonda Allen. “If you can’t get the guns, you come for the ammunition. And if you can’t get that, you come for the training.”
State lawmakers get involved?
The outcry from opponents was so intense leading up to Wednesday’s meeting that commission leaders met with state Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort, to let him personally make some changes to the proposed rules.
Kidwell leads the far-right Freedom Caucus in the state House and has long pushed for gutting the state’s gun laws, including through his recent push to get rid of concealed carry permits altogether and let anyone carry concealed firearms, regardless of their training or proficiency. That bill had the green light from GOP leadership in the state House earlier this year, but died after Senate leadership indicated it was a step too far and wouldn’t get a vote.
Kidwell he has enough respect in firearms circles that several people who spoke Wednesday said they probably wouldn’t have come at all if they had known he had been given the chance to make some last-minute changes. But for Valone and others who still oppose the rules, there’s hope that soon the entire legislature might get involved and step in to scuttle the rules entirely.
And there is a chance for that to happen; the commission had originally planned to vote on the new rules Friday but announced Wednesday the vote would be pushed back until November, to give more time for public feedback and potential edits.
Not every instructor who attended Wednesday’s meeting opposed the rules. A few said they already kept lists of clients going through their courses, often for legal reasons.
“We conduct ourselves very professionally, so everything you’re proposing, we can do that,” said Ted Williams, owner of Force Training in Nash County.
But he was one of few who were OK with the changes.
Heather Allen, a Surf City firearms instructor, said she moved to North Carolina from California and is fearful of her new home state following California’s lead in regulating guns.
“Yes, punish the people who are selling permits out of their truck,” she said. “Punish the people who are teaching drunk. But don’t punish the good concealed carry instructors with redundant paperwork.”
There was something lost in translation between the DOJ-led Criminal Justice Standards Division and opponents such as Allen — and the many others who voiced similar concerns Wednesday.
Opponents say the government should go after the bad apples without making the rest of them do any more work. Dismukes, however, said the reason the state has found itself unable to go after the bad apples is because it has had trouble finding witnesses to back up allegations, so it needs everyone to do more paperwork to help with future investigations.
On the allegation of the drunk instructor, for example, only one student came forward. So without being able to track down others in the class, Dismukes said, the only evidence they had was the instructor saying he wasn’t drunk and the student saying he was. In other cases, there were allegations of instructors essentially soliciting bribes — offering to either teach someone the class or to just say they passed it for a $100 fee — or of failing to determine that students actually passed the firing range accuracy test the state requires for a concealed-carry permit.
Many in the audience seemed disturbed by those reports, even if they disagreed with the proposed solutions. Some opposed a rule that would force instructors to plan their classes a week out, saying it would essentially destroy their fast-turnaround business model. Others opposed the suggestion that they keep records of who attends their classes, worried about the government using the new rules to create a list of handgun owners across the state, which they fear could be misused.
The rules say the lists would not be maintained by the government. The instructors would keep the lists, and could delete their records after 24 months. The government would only be able to access those lists as part of an official investigation. And if the government ever did access one of those lists, it would not be a public record — and any records would have to be destroyed as soon as the investigation ends.
“I think there’s a lot of misconception around why we are here today,” Dismukes told the crowd. “… We are not trying, as a commission, to keep track of who has a [concealed-carry] permit. That is not our job.”