Fearful of federal ‘gun grabs,’ lawmakers seek to use SC militia law

A Republican South Carolina senator worried about future federal “gun grabs” got backing from a Senate panel this week on his proposal that lists what types of weapons members of the state’s “unorganized militia” can have.

The Senate’s Family and Veterans Services Committee voted 8-6 Wednesday to send S. 614 to the floor over concerns from mostly Democratic lawmakers who questioned whether the legislation is constitutional.

In state law, South Carolina’s “unorganized militia” was founded in the event that more forces than the National Guard had available were needed to respond to a statewide emergency. Its membership is any “able-bodied” South Carolinian ages 18 to 45, according to state law.

Should the bill pass, it would allow any member of the militia to own guns deemed legal under state law as of Dec. 21, 2020. The legislation also would provide a path for any South Carolinian who wants to opt out of the militia.

“Do we want our militia members fighting with pitchforks and broomsticks?” said state Sen. Thomas Corbin, R-Greenville, the bill’s lead sponsor.

But Corbin said his bill was more about concerns that a federal gun grab could be imminent.

“There’s a lot of good American citizens out there that I represent that are just afraid that at some point of time, the federal government, under any administration, may come and try to infringe on their Second Amendment rights,” Corbin said.

Freshman state Sen. Penry Gustofson, R-Kershaw, also said she was concerned about actions the Biden administration and a Democrat-controlled Congress could take. President Joe Biden has advocated for an assault weapons ban after two recent mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado.

“This is not a bill that encourages fear-mongering,” Gustofson said. “There is a basis and a reason behind this bill.”

Democrats argued the bill would fall short of doing anything and would likely be unconstitutional.

“There seems to be some notion that the federal government is going to come into states and just collect guns,” said freshman state Sen. Vernon Stephens, D-Orangeburg, who noted the federal government has not taken any such action.

“As I look around and see some of the incidents that are occurring in our state, in our nation, it scares me. And, yes, we continue to have vigils after mass shootings and pray that we’re going to do something better and then it goes away,” Stephens said. “And then we have another and then we have another and then we have another.”

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, called the bill “political.”

“My point is this: The facts are the death of people in mass shootings have been an epidemic in the Trump administration, the Biden administration and the Obama administration,” Harpootlian said. “Facts are facts. This president is not going to break into your house and seize your guns. There’s no evidence its ever been done.”

Harpootlian, a lawyer and former solicitor, said the bill is likely unconstitutional, adding the Legislature has considered a number of bills aimed at challenging current court precedence this session, including a fetal heartbeat abortion ban bill, now under injunction by a federal court.

“We keep passing stuff that’s unconstitutional against the current Supreme Court rulings thinking this is the best thing to do with our time,” Harpootlian said.

And because of differences between state and federal gun laws, Harpootlian said the bill could result in gun owners who have criminal backgrounds. At the federal level, the law forbids a person from owning a gun who has beenconvicted in court of a crime with a penalty of imprisonment for more than a year, or a felony conviction. South Carolina law only prohibits those convicted of “violent crimes” from owning a gun, meaning if the bill relied on state law alone, some drug offenders could be allowed to own a gun, Harpootlian said.

Other Democrats questioned whether passing such legislation to fight against any federal gun law was the responsibility of state government. State Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, argued that it was the role of the Supreme Court to overrule any federal law that didn’t comply with the Second Amendment.

“I’m just wondering if it’s a good use of our time at the state level to get outside of our lane and do something that the federal government should be doing,” McElveen said.