Open carry gun bill gets new momentum as Republicans take advantage of November wins

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Over the last decade, Republican lawmakers in South Carolina have tried dozens of times to expand gun laws, from laws dictating where South Carolinians should be allowed to carry guns to how visible those guns should be.

But those efforts, time and time again, have been derailed by a coalition of some Democrats, law enforcement and many times their Republican allies, who see gun expansion legislation down the list of priorities.

2020 has the potential to change all of that.

South Carolina House Republicans are this year gearing up to again adopt more expansive gun legislation, part of their priorities after flipping two seats in the chamber in the November elections, giving the majority party even more power.

The proposal up for debate — H. 3094, which would allow trained concealed weapons permit holders to carry those guns out in the open — has the backing of dozens of House Republicans and so far three House Democrats. The bill’s primary sponsor, gun owner and state Rep. Bobby Cox, R-Greenville, told The State Tuesday that if signed into law, it would bring South Carolina in line with 46 other states that have some kind of open carry law already on the books, adjoining it with neighboring and other Southeastern states.

Republicans also argue the legislation is needed to help clear up state law, because state law only clearly bans the open carrying of handguns, and by not mentioning other types of weapons including long guns, the law could be read as permitting the open carrying of those weapons, critics say.

Cox says the Republicans’ wins in November are a signal that South Carolina is firmly in support of the more conservative agenda items of the party.

“This last election cycle, we saw a different dynamic shift on the political national scene toward Congress going Democratic, the administration. We saw the opposite in South Carolina,” Cox said. “It’s really a mandate to address platform conservative issues that we haven’t been able to get through. This is the time to push these issues.”

Bills to further expand gun rights in South Carolina have often died during session, failing to see light because the bills never get a chance at a committee hearing or are blocked with help from Democrats despite pushes by a vocal sect of conservative lawmakers.

Over the last year, COVID-19 dealt a blow to any bills that had a chance of passage as lawmakers postponed and staggered the session.

But Republican leaders see an opportunity this year — ahead of passing the budget, tackling reapportionment and any COVID-19 scheduling problems — to get through some of the party’s tougher priorities on the floor.

Expansion of gun rights in South Carolina is not the only debate Republicans have seized on since gaining more legislative leverage.

After flipping five State House seats in November, House and Senate Republicans have fast-tracked an abortion bill to stop those procedures once a heartbeat is detected. A House Judiciary Committee is expected to adopt the bill next week, sending it to the floor for what will be its final, major test of support.

Once it passes the House, and any differences between the House and Senate are resolved — if there are any — Gov. Henry McMaster plans to sign the abortion ban, which will place South Carolina among the states in the country with the strictest access to the procedure.

Abortion and gun bills, in particular, are House Republican Caucus agenda items where there is member consensus, said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, who predicted the open carry bill with the weapons permit provision attached will pass the House.

Here’s how the open carry bill, if it becomes law, would work.

The proposal would explicitly expand the state’s current concealed carry law to allow the open carrying of handguns where permitted. Under the bill, a trained gun owner who has a permit to carry a weapon concealed could carry their weapon in plain view, but not in places or businesses where having a gun is not allowed.

That means, for example, guns would still be banned in places such as schools, certain businesses and the South Carolina State House.

A House panel heard Thursday that state statues against brandishing, threatening and intimidation using a gun would still be in place, meaning that someone with a concealed weapons permit who open carries would still be held to those laws in place.

“What we are asking is for you to allow concealed carry holders to take off their coat,” testified DJ Spiker, with the National Rifle Association.

Permit or no permit?

Some Republicans want the state to expand the bill even further.

State Rep. Jonathon Hill, an Anderson Republican who was suspended from the House Republican Caucus, told The State he is prepared to offer an amendment that would allow open carry without a weapons permit. But should his effort fail, he said, then “yes, I would very happily vote for the bill.”

Hill said he will not consider that a victory for constitutional carry, a proposal that would allow the open carry of guns by anyone, regardless if they had a permit.

“I’m going to continue pushing for constitutional carry and try to amend it over there on the Senate side. The House passing it is only the first step” in the process, Hill said.

Cox, who works for a gun company, said he personally believes a person does not need a permit under the Constitution to carry, underscoring a long-standing debate about how to interpret the Second Amendment and whether it allows any restrictions on citizens to keep and bear arms.

“But right now the appetite’s not there (for constitutional carry) with the leadership,” Cox said, citing polling. “It’s an incremental step to get used to it with the ultimate goal of constitutional carry.”

Statewide polling strongly suggests South Carolinians also are not supportive of expanding gun rights without requiring a weapons permit.

Last spring, polling done by Lexington-based Starboard Communications showed 67% of likely South Carolina general election voters oppose open carry without a permit. Broken down by political party, 56% of Republican voters opposed that expansion and 88% of Democrats did, too.

However, with a permit, 65% of those same South Carolina voters polled said they would support open carry with a permit. By political party, 77% of Republicans supported the same measure, compared with 43% of Democrats.

Powerful critics lining up

Still, law enforcement questions the necessity of the bill as is.

Chief Mark Keel of the State Law Enforcement Division, a state agency that can carry significant power over legislation passing, told The State he has “great concerns” about the bill and what it would mean for officers’ safety and overall public safety.

“I’m a Second Amendment guy. Nobody believes any stronger than I do in the right to bear arms,” Keel said.

Yet, Keel said, “I wonder how it will be in the summer time when people are strolling down Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach on peak weekends wearing guns openly, not to mention people openly carrying during Harley Week or Memorial Week and crowded country music festivals where there’s alcohol involved.”

More specifically, Keel said open carry could present problems for law enforcement when responding to emergencies about someone brandishing a gun, “as if we don’t already have enough concerns with guns in our society right now.”

The state has nearly 570,000 concealed weapons permit holders — about a tenth of South Carolina’s population, Keel said.

“Our CWP law is one of the best in the country, and we have not had problems with concealed weapons holders,” Keel said. “But open carry creates a whole new dynamic.” Keel said.

Midlands area police agencies also have problems with the bill.

“If they don’t allow guns in the State House, why should they allow people to display guns in my house, which is the streets of Richland County?” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said, referring to the community he patrols. “You ask any cop, and they will tell you this is a bad idea.”

City of Columbia’s police Chief Skip Holbrook said he also was concerned.

“In a capital city, where we have protests and five universities and colleges and a lot of emotions and some tensions, it just blurs the lines,” Holbrook said. “You’re putting officers in tough situations. It’s difficult to determine friend from foe and what somebody’s intent is. We can’t read minds. If we could read minds, it would be different. But we can’t.”

The South Carolina Sheriff’s Association, meanwhile, is taking a “neutral” position, its executive director, Jarrod Bruder, told the House Judiciary Committee.

But, in that same letter, Bruder encouraged lawmakers to look at existing open carry laws in other states, including North Carolina, that restrict where in public people can carry their guns.

“The adopt of similar laws may alleviate the fears of some in the local enforcement community who believe this legislation could escalate violence and/or confrontations, especially during public protests which have become more regular and more contentious in recent months,” Bruder wrote.

Though the bill appears to have groundswell support in the House, its fate in the Senate is more unsteady.

Two years ago, a proposal died in the Senate after state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch declined to hold a hearing on the bill after former House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter McCoy, now U.S. attorney of South Carolina, was threatened in a Facebook post.

In 2017, the House passed a a bill that allowed the carrying of firearms without a permit.

It immediately died in the Senate.

“We have a lot of bills, a lot of topics and I don’t know that that is at the top of the list present,” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, told The State this week.

Asked if he has heard from colleagues whether they want to get this done Rankin said, “Not this year, but next.”