A measure to loosen gun restrictions in the Tar Heel State would allow concealed carry permit-holders to have their handguns on school grounds if the firearms are kept inside a closed compartment or container within a locked car. Reps. Tim Moore, Kelly Hastings and Mike Hager voted for the bill, which won approval in the House June 7 and is slated for committee hearings in the state Senate.
"If you're going to pick your child up at school and you're otherwise a law-abiding citizen and have no criminal intent, you should not be charged as a felon just because you're exercising your Second Amendment right," said Hastings, a primary sponsor of House Bill 650.
Supporters stress that those with concealed-carry permits meet stringent safety requirements and pass criminal background checks, but educators fear that allowing handguns on school property would increase the likelihood of violent crime.
"I have concerns both as a superintendent and as a parent," said Cleveland County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bruce Boyles. "I understand the right to have firearms, but I also understand the potential for them to become a problem on the school campus."
Hastings said allowing adults with valid concealed handgun permits to keep their guns locked securely in the car when they drop off and pick up their children wouldn't affect school safety. Anyone who can't legally carry concealed or who intends to commit a crime would still face severe punishment.
"The very few people this will apply to have had to meet a very high burden to be able to carry a firearm," he said. "It's not like the wild west. There are still a lot of restrictions in place."
Parents' passion for both their children's education and their participation in sports and activities can sometimes make tempers run hot, Boyles said. Adding guns to that volatile mix, he fears, could put parents, educators and children at greater risk.
"We have parents who come on campus from time to time who are unhappy with one of our decisions or something that's happened between their child and another child," he said. "It's troubling to think about the potential for a change that would allow weapons to be on our campuses."
There's no chance that pistols could be legally stored in the student parking lot if the bill becomes law. Gun owners must be 21 to apply for concealed-carry permits, and Boyles said school rules would prevent students from bringing concealed weapons on school property.
Another provision in HB 650 reduces the penalty for having a firearm on educational property — which would apply to anyone without a concealed-carry permit caught with a gun — from a Class I felony to a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Hastings said the change was designed so that hunters who leave shotguns and rifles in their cars wouldn't become convicted felons. In rural communities both in Cleveland County and across the state, a trip to school can sometimes follow a hunting expedition on a parent's agenda, he explained.
"If you don't have time to go back home, you don't want to put the gun down on the side of the road before you drive onto school grounds," Hastings said.
Boyles said most student sportsmen and their parents know the rules and understand that guns are forbidden on school property.
"We occasionally deal with a student who is a hunter who might have a weapon that they inadvertently leave in a vehicle," he said, "but most folks, when they have a weapon, they remember that they have it.
HB 650's main purpose is to give North Carolinians the right to kill an intruder in a house, car or workplace. Under current law, lawful occupants can only use deadly force if they are in fear for their lives or the life of another person or trying to prevent a serious crime. The bill is now awaiting a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee II.
An outspoken supporter of Second Amendment rights and a sponsor of a similar castle doctrine bill, state Sen. Debbie Clary said the provision allowing concealed handguns in locked cars at public school campuses would likely be stricken.
"I don't support that language, and it is not in the Senate version of the bill," said Clary, R-Cleveland. "I'm not excited about encouraging people to bring their guns and lock them in their trunks at school."
While Clary indicated she would oppose allowing guns on school grounds, she said any controversy about the gun bill has been overstated. No one had contacted her to express opposition to the measure, she said.
"I don't think it's an issue," Clary said. "I think any time you say guns in schools, people get excited whether you've got concealed carry or not."