South Carolina gun laws expected to relax as House approves open carry without permit

by Tommy Grant

South Carolina lawmakers appear close to approving a bill that would allow anyone who can legally own a gun to carry the weapon openly.

The proposal includes stiffer penalties for people who repeatedly carry guns in places where they would still be banned, like schools or courthouses, or commit crimes while armed, whether they use the weapon or not. It also would provide millions of dollars for free gun training across the state needed to get a concealed weapons permit for any adult who wants it.

The House, which had been the sticking point for the proposal, voted 86-33, with most Republicans voting for it and Democrats against it. The Senate agreeably discussed the bill at the same time, but it delayed a possible vote to take up changes on how to elect judges.

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The governor is expected to sign the bill, allowing South Carolina to join nearly 30 other states that allow open carry of guns without a permit, including nearly every state in the Deep South.

The House and Senate passed different versions of the bill this year, with a number of Republican House members unhappy about another proposal that would add punishment for people who don’t take the training and are convicted of not following the rules about where guns are banned.

But a conference committee of three House members and three senators agreed Tuesday to much of the Senate’s language, conceding the bill likely wouldn’t pass the Senate without it.

“You don’t have the votes, you don’t have the bill,” said Republican Rep. Micah Caskey of Springdale.

Most of the compromise leaned toward the Senate, although House members insisted the committee remove allowing legislators to be able to carry a gun nearly anywhere they want any time.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey reminded House members several times the reason the bill hasn’t passed earlier is supportive senators didn’t have the votes without the extra penalties, especially for people who repeatedly carry guns where they aren’t allowed to do so.

“If you do the same thing three times, it’s not an accident anymore,” the senator from Edgefield said. “At some point, there’s got to be a graduated level of penalties to get people’s attention.”

Offering the training classes would cost about $5 million a year, House members promised to revisit how many people took advantage of the classes after a few years to see if it is worth continuing the classes.

A number of law enforcement leaders weren’t happy with the proposal, worrying about their officers encountering armed people at shooting scenes having to make a split-second assessment about who is a threat and who is trying to help and a lack of required training for people to carry guns in public. Currently only concealed weapons permit holders can openly carry pistols.

To get law enforcement to at least remain neutral, the bill includes a proposal that would create a state crime for a felon to possess a weapon, with penalties similar to federal law. Gov. Henry McMaster said that provision was crucial to his support.

“What happened to supporting our law enforcement? What happened to listening to what they say?” asked Democratic Rep. Jermaine Johnson from Columbia. “This thing you are going to do is going to have repercussions.”

Part of the struggle to get the bill passed were gun-rights groups that didn’t want the extra penalties. The groups have been vocal and put pressure on lawmakers, especially Republicans, who are against the bill.

“They have been successful in kowtowing us to pass this bill that the people don’t want and law enforcement doesn’t need,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto of Orangeburg.

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