Chatham gun permit requests rise ‘10-fold’ in pandemic

PITTSBORO — The Chatham County Sheriff’s Office has been juggling a prodigious influx of gun permit requests since the novel coronavirus pandemic’s onset in March.

In the months since March, total requests increased 314% from the same time period in 2019. At the start of the pandemic especially, permit requests surged.

“(We had) a 10-fold spike in the number of applications in a single month,” Sheriff Mike Roberson said. It “was unprecedented for our office.”

In June alone, the Sheriff’s Office fielded 392 gun permit requests, compared to 31 in June 2019. That amounts to a 1,165% increase. The first six months of 2019 saw just 343 requests total.

The Sheriff’s Office remains surprised by the sudden spike; it may never identify what precipitated the barrage of requests.

“Permit applicants are not asked why they are seeking a permit,” Roberson said, “so we do not know the reasons for the increase.”

Still, the sheriff has some theories.

“One possibility is that residents delayed requesting permits or taking unnecessary trips — including to the Sheriff’s Office — during the height of the pandemic,” Roberson said. “Once some restrictions were lifted and folks began venturing out to conduct more business, we saw a surge in the number of applications. It is possible that the ‘spike’ in applications was simply temporary congestion that we will see level out in the future.”

Recent development of an online gun permit request portal may also have facilitated an uptick in requests from Chatham County residents who had struggled with the tedious former process.

“Another possibility is that more people are applying now because we have made efforts to streamline the process in recent months,” Roberson said. “To enhance accessibility and convenience during the pandemic, we are now allowing residents to apply online and request that their permit be mailed to them. This limits public traffic into the Sheriff’s Office and has been a popular choice for applicants.”

Data from the first quarter of 2020 — the most recent available figures — indicate most of the hundreds of unprecedented gun permit requests have been approved.

“It appears we only denied one application in the first quarter of 2020,” said Lt. Sara Pack, the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office public information officer. That equals a 0.35% denial rate.

“For all of 2019,” she said, “we denied 10 applications and issued 669 permits, so that was around a 1.5% denial rate.”

Despite the infrequent denials, Roberson maintains his office is astute in vetting candidates.

“I can say that our staff members follow statute N.C. G.S. 14-404 very closely when determining whether or not to issue a permit,” he said.

The “grounds for refusal” statute requires a sheriff satisfy three general criteria in reviewing applications for gun permits. They must:

• Verify “by a criminal history background investigation that it is not a violation of State or federal law for the applicant to purchase, transfer, receive, or possess a handgun.”

• Be fully satisfied “as to the good moral character of the applicant.”

• Be fully satisfied “that the applicant desires the possession of the weapon mentioned for (i) the protection of the home, business, person, family or property, (ii) target shooting, (iii) collecting, or (iv) hunting.

Rarely does Roberson feel an applicant fails to meet those requirements.

“The majority of applicants seem to be law-abiding citizens,” he said.

But the demand for permits has burdened the sheriff’s staff. To address the issue, office workers have been re-appropriated from other departments to review permit requests.

“We have essentially doubled the number of staff members assigned to permit processing,” Roberson said. “We have temporarily reassigned a sworn staff member to assist and have also received part-time help from a civilian employee loaned to us by the county. We also utilize officers who are injured or on light-duty by allowing them to help process permits until they are recovered and cleared to return to full-duty in their usual assignment.”

The sheriff is pleased with his team’s diligence in rising to the unexpected challenge. A combination of fortuitous circumstances and hard work has permitted the staff to process applications within the state-mandated timeframe, he said.

“A similar spike in more densely-populated counties could quickly overwhelm or even cripple an agency’s ability to respond to requests in a timely manner as required by law,” Roberson said. “Our focused response has required a lot of teamwork and dedication from our staff, and I am immensely proud of the hard work they are putting into meeting the changing needs and expectations of our residents.”

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