SC House passes bill that could dramatically expand state’s gun laws

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster speaks during an election night party for Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C.) on Nov. 3, 2020, in Columbia, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)
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Maayan Schechter The State (Columbia, S.C.) (TNS)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina House passed its second expansion of the right to carry firearms this year, this time in a measure that would allow people to carry handguns openly regardless of whether they have a permit.

The 69-47 vote on the chamber’s so-called “constitutional carry” bill came Wednesday over objections by some of the state’s top voices in the law enforcement community and also Republican House members, who, in one case, argued the legislation would make South Carolina unsafe and put the state’s friendly attitude toward families and businesses moving to the state at risk.

State Rep. Bart Blackwell, R-Aiken, said the proposal is “simply bad policy” and called it a “bad idea,” acknowledging that his opposition puts him at risk, again, of sparking a primary challenger and getting a poor score from national gun rights group, the NRA.

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He and other notable Republicans, including House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York; House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York; and state Rep. Kirkman, Finlay, voted against the bill.

“It doesn’t make my constituents any safer. It doesn’t really do anything,” said Blackwell, a permitted gun owner. “It doesn’t make South Carolina a better place to live, or work or raise a family. And I would argue it even makes it less attractive to visit and to invest for business.”

The so-called constitutional carry measure — the belief the Constitution gives gun owners the right to carry without regulation — was part of an agreement between House leadership and a handful of Republican members, who pushed leaders for a vote on the bill, believing the House’s legislation to allow for open carry with a permit does not go far enough to support the Second Amendment.

State Rep. Micah Caskey, a Lexington Republican who led hearings on the bill, said nothing in the legislation would change a person’s legal authority to have a gun if that person is already able to possess a gun, meaning people who already cannot legally own a gun would not suddenly be able to under the bill.

Should the legislation become law, legal gun owners still could not carry on grounds where guns are banned, such as the State House.

“Nothing in this bill changes that,” Caskey said.

But a clear dilemma for House Republicans who pushed for the bill’s passage will be the state Senate.

The Senate might be GOP-controlled, but it is unlikely to pass such an expansive gun bill, and Republicans senators have expressed uncertainty that they would have enough votes. Instead, the upper chamber is more likely to vote on a somewhat similar measure passed by the House weeks ago that would allow legal gun owners to carry open in public, but only with a permit.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who is up for reelection in 2022 and has spoken support of open carry, told reporters on Tuesday he will back “anything that protects the people’s right to have and bear arms.”

“We need be very careful when we infringe, or do anything that may infringe on that Second Amendment right,” which is very clear and important, the governor added.

But some of the top leaders in South Carolina’s law enforcement community have been adamant the bills will do more harm.

In particular, State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who also opposes open carry with a permit, said the legislation could pose serious problems for police officers when they come into contact with someone holding a gun.

“I’m concerned it’s going to create more possibly tragic interactions with law enforcement and the public and we’re not having that right now with our CWP statute,” Keel recently told The State. “And I’m concerned that the open carry (bill) will create more of those type of situations” that put law enforcement in direct conflict with the public, he added.

That opposition has not been enough to overcome many GOP voices in the House.

Particularly, weeks after two mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, and news that President Joe Biden is looking at federal gun regulations, Republicans said on Wednesday that messaging out of the White House shows more reason to pass the bill.

Hoping to avoid any federal interference, the House agreed to a Republican change that tweaked the bill to ensure the federal government could not interfere with the state’s gun laws or regulate a South Carolinian’s ability to own a gun.

“With the tenor coming out of Washington, D.C., it’s important that we say in this state, we’re not going to tolerate that,” said state Rep. Russell Fry, R-Horry, who is reportedly exploring a run for Congress.

However, no successful gun legislation has come out of Washington, said state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, adding that the federal government has so far not created any mandates that would restrict South Carolina’s gun laws.

It’s not good “lawmaking as a state to create law that speaks to something that may or may not even happen, because once this law is on the books, it’s on the books,” Bamberg said. “This is South Carolina. This is not Washington, D.C.”

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