COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The Republican-controlled South Carolina House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to allow lawful firearm owners to carry handguns openly or concealed without a state permit.
The 90-30 vote brings the conservative state one step closer to joining 25 others with some form of so-called “constitutional carry” laws. The fate of the state's latest effort to loosen gun restrictions once more falls to the Senate, where lawmakers rejected a similar proposal two years ago.
“This will open up options for families to protect themselves without a permit,” said Republican Rep. Bobby Cox, the bill's leading sponsor. “South Carolinians can still get the training they need. But they don’t need a permission slip to exercise that right.”
Republicans passed the bill over the strong objections of many Democrats who said the move would decrease public safety in communities already ravaged by gun deaths. Opponents included one lawmaker whose sister was one of the nine Black churchgoers killed by an avowed white supremacist in a 2015 mass shooting at the South's oldest African Methodist Episcopal church.
Rep. JA Moore accused Republicans of publicly supporting a measure privately acknowledged by some as a “bad bill."
“My sister was murdered by a legal gun that a white supremacist terrorist should not have had," Moore said. “So shame on y’all for playing politics with people’s lives.”
The measure would restrict people from bringing guns into detention centers, courthouses, polling places, government offices, school athletic events, schools, religious sanctuaries and doctor's offices, among other locations.
On-duty law enforcement, Armed Forces, National Guard, state militia and members of the judiciary are exempt from those restrictions. After some discussion, lawmakers added public defenders and county clerks of court to the list but explicitly barred them from carrying concealed weapons into correctional facilities.
The measure would effectively lower the age at which South Carolinians can carry a concealed gun. State law allows anyone 18 or older to purchase a gun. But concealed weapons permits have only been available to people over 21 years old.
The process for obtaining a concealed weapons permit in South Carolina currently requires about eight hours of training. Another failed amendment sought to add language encouraging citizens to complete a “firearm education course.”
Several amendments made strange bedfellows of Democrats and the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus. One successful change added language explicitly stating that the open carry of a weapon “does not give a law enforcement officer reasonable suspicion or probable cause to search, detain, or arrest the person.” Some Black lawmakers expressed concerns that police officers would treat African American gunowners differently than others.
One particular section similarly drew opposition from the two typically opposing groups.
In addition to allowing permitless carry, the bill would bar people convicted of most felonies from firearm possession and align state penalties with federal law. Violations would draw prison terms up to five years for a first offense, five to 20 years for a second offense and ten to 30 years for a subsequent offense. There are also exemptions for those convicted of business crimes such as antitrust violations or unfair trade practices. It also would exempt anyone convicted of a misdemeanor punishable by five years imprisonment or less.
Republican Rep. Thomas Beach said the section amounted to a “gun grab” consistent with President Joe Biden’s “anti-2nd Amendment agenda.” Democrats also criticized their counterparts for creating a new criminal law restricting firearm ownership within this supposed expansion of gun rights.
Democratic Rep. Seth Rose charged Republicans with squeezing two measures into one bill in a “bait-and-switch” that bypassed the necessary committee process, where law enforcement officials have previously expressed opposition to similar permitless carry proposals.
“When you show up to a crime scene and everyone’s carrying guns on their hip, guess what, that’s dangerous,” Rose said. "Law enforcement doesn’t know who the good guys are and the bad guys are. And a lot of times we don’t want good guys acting like law enforcement and making a bad situation worse.”
Cox supported the effort he said both protects law abiding gun owners and targets violent criminals. Cox said lawmakers worked extensively on the bill with the National Rifle Association, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and local sheriffs.
Republican Rep. Weston Newton suggested the additional “felon-in-possession statute” was necessary to secure support from law enforcement groups who wanted more tools to crack down on repeat offenders charged with misdemeanor gun possession.
“This language needs to stay in this bill or law enforcement is against this bill," Netwon said. "This was part of the arrangement when it went in.”
James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.