Gun rights groups file suit against Wake sheriff over halt on pistol permits

This image taken March 14, 2020, shows a nearly empty display shelf for ammunition at a sportsmen’s store. A sign at the store alerted customers that the store was limiting the number of firearms and ammunition that people could buy in a given day. (AP Photo/Lisa Marie Pane)

RALEIGH — Three gun rights advocacy groups have filed suit against Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker over the recent announcement that his office was suspending pistol purchase permits through April 30.

“This decision does not limit anyone’s right to purchase a handgun,” said Baker in a press release. “This decision is not a violation of anyone’s Second Amendment rights.”

Baker claimed that processing these permits, as he is required to by law, was “impossible,” because his staff has been “inundated with high volumes of permit applications.”

Three gun rights groups disagree and have filed a federal suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, naming Baker as the defendant. It is unclear when the case will be heard, as many courts in the state and elsewhere in the country are on a delay due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Second Amendment Foundation (SAF), Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC) and Grass Roots North Carolina (GRNC) filed the suit along with Kelly Stafford, a member of GRNC and a Wake County resident who has been denied a permit by Baker.

The groups are seeking an injunction to stop Baker from continuing his current practice of denying pistol permits and concealed carry permits, which the suit says, “constitutes a de facto categorical ban the likes of which is absolutely prohibited under the supreme law of the land.”

“Although Sheriff Gerald Baker claims his refusal to accept applications for pistol purchase permits and concealed handgun permits doesn’t infringe on individual rights, nothing could be further from the truth,” said GRNC President Paul Valone. “During this emergency, as always, GRNC intends to ensure that lawful North Carolinians have the means to protect themselves and their families.”

“Times of emergency are when you need the ability to obtain the means of self-defense the most. Suspending that right is not acceptable. That is why this lawsuit is so important,” commented SAF founder and executive vice president, Alan Gottlieb.

The suit calls Baker’s action an “illegal and unconstitutional ban” and says that Baker is violating his statutory obligations under N.C. General Statute § 14-402. In addition, the suit states that Baker is “statutorily required to issue these permits, and within a finite period of time,” so long as the applicant meets the eligibility criteria.

Attorneys for the plaintiff include Ed Green, GRNC director of legal affairs; Raymond M. DiGuiseppe, a former California deputy attorney general and prosecutor; and Adam Kraut, FPC director of legal strategy.

“Sheriff Baker is implementing by fiat what the Supreme Court struck down in Heller — a ban on a citizen’s right to purchase a handgun for the defense of hearth and home. This action cannot be allowed to stand,” said GRNC’s Ed Green in a statement.

“Sheriff Baker’s unconstitutional actions have and will deprive law-abiding, peaceable individuals the opportunity to obtain handguns, the ‘quintessential self-defense weapon’ according to the U.S. Supreme Court, in a time where the arms are most needed,” explained attorney and FPC director of legal strategy, Adam Kraut.

Baker’s position that his suspension of permit issuance was “consistent with Governor Roy Cooper’s executive orders and that of Wake County Commissioner Greg Ford,” may change soon given that the Trump Administration has recently revised its guidance on essential businesses and workers that now includes firearms.

A March 28 memo from the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency allows, “Workers supporting the operation of firearm or ammunition product manufacturers, retailers, importers, distributors, and shooting ranges.

The new guidance from CISA will likely result in the need for municipalities and states to update their definition of an essential industry and worker in “stay at home” and “shelter in place” orders.

A press release from the Wake County Sheriff’s Office late on Tuesday, March 31,  noted a consent order entered into by both parties which agree to Sheriff Baker modifying the application process so as to ‘minimize or alleviate the admission of applicants for said permits to the Public Safety Center,’ during the term of the State of Emergency. The sheriff will also resume processing applications in as timely a fashion as possible.

One example would be the Wake County Commissions’ “Proclamation of Emergency Restrictions,” which is essentially a “stay at home” order. The restrictions in it are based on previous federal guidance from March 19 that does not include firearms.

Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America, an organization based in Virginia, joined the other three groups fighting restrictions in Wake County. Pratt and GRNC President Paul Valone sent a letter to the Wake County Board of Commissioners warning of impending legal filings unless the county corrected its proclamation.

The letter, which was addressed to Chairman Greg Ford, directs the board’s attention to the recent CISA guidelines and asks the board to update its proclamation, giving the board until noon on March 31 to comply.

The threat of litigation appeared to have an effect.

“We are in the process of updating our proclamation for consistency with the CISA update on March 28, 2020,” Wake County officials told GOA and GRNC attorneys, according to a joint press release by the two organizations.

The Wake County “stay at home” proclamation was not altered; however, the frequently asked questions section of Wake County’s COVID-19 website was updated to reflect the change in CISA guidance.

“GRNC is pleased the Wake County Board of Commissioners has acknowledged that for the safety and security of citizens, firearms retailers and related businesses are indeed part of the critical infrastructure of our country and must remain open during any state of emergency,” said Valone.

Independently of the gun rights groups’ letter, a citizen who asked Wake County Commissioner Greg Ford about the CISA updates was initially met with pushback.

Ford, responding on Facebook, told the man that, “The president’s political activity does not usurp state and local laws. Gun shops, like other retailers that are non-essential, will remain closed in Wake County.”

Later that same day, Ford had backtracked and told the man there had been a “misunderstanding” and that the board would “respond accordingly” if they received “official notification” of any changes to CISA guidance.

Ford also said the board of commissioners “strongly support[s] the right to bear arms” and pointed to the board re-opening the Wake County Firearms Training Center.

As of March, over 70 counties in North Carolina had passed a Second Amendment resolution or similar measure, but Wake County isn’t one of them.

Communications director for Wake County government Dara Demi told North State Journal in February that, “The Wake County Board of Commissioners has not discussed this issue to date during its formal meetings, and it is not currently on the agenda for any future meetings.”

The most recent executive order issued by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper directing citizens statewide to “stay at home” is not directly impacted by the CISA updates.

A Frequently Asked Questions document clarifying Cooper’s order says that gun retailers are allowed to remain open so long as social distancing efforts for both employees and patrons are practiced.