When winter storms slammed North Carolina in early 2010, Gov. Bev Perdue declared a state of emergency.
The city of King followed on Feb. 5 with its own declaration of emergency that included — as allowed by state law — a ban on the possession of alcohol and firearms except at a person's own home.
A Stokes County man, two other people and two gun-rights organizations sued the state, King and Stokes County that summer, claiming that their rights under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution were violated. The amendment protects citizens' right to bear arms.
Now, a federal court has agreed, ruling that state law can't make a blanket ban that keeps the plaintiffs from carrying or buying guns and ammunition during an emergency.
"While the bans imposed … may be limited in duration, it cannot be overlooked that the statutes strip peaceable, law-abiding citizens of the right to arm themselves in defense of hearth and home, striking at the very core of the Second Amendment," Senior U.S. District Judge Malcolm J. Howard wrote in his order.
The order, issued Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, stopped short of finding the state's emergency gun-ban law unconstitutional on its very face, finding that the plaintiffs were "unable to demonstrate that there are no set of circumstances under which the emergency declaration statutes would be valid."
Still, attorney Alan Gura, who represented the plaintiffs, said the impact of the ruling will be that police are "on notice" that they cannot enforce the ban on people who are law-abiding citizens exercising their rights.
"The law could be theoretically applied to someone who was engaged in some illegal behavior," Gura said.
The state has 30 days to appeal the judge's decision, but a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Justice said state attorneys were reviewing the order and that no decision had been made.
The state passed its emergency-declaration law in 1969, as part of a riot control act. The law provided that the state and its cities and counties could declare a state of emergency because of "public crisis, disaster, rioting, catastrophe or similar public emergency."
Typically, it is bad weather that has been the most frequent cause.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Virgil Green of Stokes County, Michael Bateman of Washington, N.C., and Forrest Minges Jr. of New Bern. Plaintiffs also include Grass Roots North Carolina, a group that concentrates on Second Amendment issues, and the national Second Amendment Foundation.
King and Stokes County had already been dismissed from the case, in an earlier court ruling that said the plaintiffs were contesting state law, not the local actions.