South Carolina Democrat Wants To Make Gun Control Issue In Governor's Race

AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins

While it’s not exactly shocking to see a Democrat touting his gun control plans on the campaign trail, South Carolina isn’t exactly fertile ground for an anti-gun message. Still, that’s not stopping former congressman Joe Cunningham from pushing for more restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms as he vies for the Democratic nomination in next year’s governor’s race.

Cunningham, who served one term as the representative for the state’s First Congressional District before being ousted by current Rep. Nancy Mace last November, is now hoping that Democrats will tap him as their gubernatorial candidate in 2022. Like most other Democrats running for office in red states, Cunningham is campaigning on a platform of “I support the Second Amendment, but…”

What “action” is Cunningham hoping to deliver in a state with a Republican supermajority? According to The State newspaper, the only specific policies Cunningham is endorsing so far have to do with expanding background checks in the state.

During a press conference in downtown Charleston, Cunningham pledged to expand background checks on all gun sales and said he would support legislation that gives officials more time to review background checks, if he is elected governor. He also promised to fully fund evidence-based hospital and community programs that seek to break the cycle of gun violence.

Cunningham unveiled his gun-control platform in a speech delivered one block away from Emanuel AME Church, the historic house of worship where a white supremacist six years ago this week gunned down nine Black parishioners.

Those are also the only policies mentioned on Cunningham’s campaign website:

As a gun owner, I support the 2nd Amendment and the right to bear arms, and I also support everyone’s right to a safe community. That’s why it’s time to close the Charleston gun loophole and pass universal background checks in South Carolina. 

As a parent, I shouldn’t have to worry about whether my son will make it home from school alive. South Carolinians should be able to go to the movies, to the grocery store, or to the post office without worrying whether they will make it out alive. Reasonable gun safety reforms can create a safer South Carolina for all of us. 

There are a couple of problems with Cunningham’s gun control platform. First, South Carolina is a pretty pro-Second Amendment state, and Republicans dominate both the state House and Senate. Given the trends in midterm elections, it’s highly unlikely that Democrats would be able to gain control of the state legislature even if Cunningham were to pull off an upset victory in the gubernatorial election, which makes his talk of gun control legislation a more of a pipe dream than a political reality.

Beyond that, however, there are genuine issues with what Cunningham is proposing. Does he honestly believe that passage of a universal background check law is the key to reducing violent crime in the state? If so, he should probably examine the experiences of a couple of blue states that have implemented the same law in recent years. In New Mexico, there’s no evidence that the law has been enforced even a single time in the first year it was on the books, and in Colorado violent crime has increased every year since universal background checks and a magazine ban were approved back in 2013.

Cunningham, like other red state Democrats, is in a tough spot when it comes to gun control. He can’t buck his party and reject new restrictions on legal gun owners, but he can’t lean in to infringements on the right to keep and bear arms like his fellow Democrats in safe blue states like New York or New Jersey who’ve declared an all out war on the Second Amendment. Instead, he’s left with criticizing pro-Second Amendment legislation like the state’s new law that allows for concealed carry holders to also openly carry if they choose, even though he’s a concealed carry licensee himself.

“Despite the fact that we have reached historic highs for violent crime, the Legislature’s only action on gun violence has been to make it easier to carry a firearm in this state. The current leadership has failed,” Cunningham said.

The new Open Carry With Training law doesn’t make it easier to carry a gun. It doesn’t change who can carry, or the training requirements themselves. It’s a fairly modest change to state law that’s actually designed to prohibit legal gun owners from being arrested if they accidentally expose their concealed firearm. That’s a good thing, but Cunningham can’t endorse the language, even though 44 other states already allow for legal open carrying; most of them with no need for a license at all.

Cunningham may be hoping that a rise in violent crime in South Carolina will make voters more amenable to his gun control message, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Any attempt to curtail violent crime by imposing new restrictions on legal gun owners isn’t going to play well in South Carolina, and Cunningham’s reluctance to embrace a ban on so-called assault weapons or high capacity magazines isn’t likely to inspire anti-gun activists in the state either (though if he wins the nomination gun control groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action will inevitably throw some money his way).