South Carolina city courts lawsuit with new gun control measure

AP Photo/Lisa Marie Pane

And not for the first time, either. Back in 2019 the city council in Columbia, South Carolina approved a number of local gun control ordinances, including a “red flag” law, bans on lawful concealed carry within 1000 feet of a school, and declaring property where homemade guns were made to be “public nuisances”. South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson filed suit against the city, arguing that their new local laws were a violation of the state’s firearm preemption statutes, which leaves it up to the state legislature to regulate firearms, and last year a judge ruled against the city. After deliberating for months about whether to defend the laws, the Columbia city council voted instead earlier this year to repeal them.

That should have been the end of the story, but apparently these city council members can’t leave well enough alone. On Tuesday the council voted unanimously to adopt another gun control measure that appears to run afoul of state law; a new ordinance requiring gun owners to report the theft or disappearance of any of their firearms within 24 hours or else face fines of up to $500.

By requiring people to report their stolen guns, police would be able to work on tracking the weapons down instead of seizing a gun after it’s used in a crime and tracing it back to its owner, Police Chief Skip Holbrook told a city committee in August.

“This is a compliance tool,” Holbrook said at the time. “We’re asking our citizens to be good citizens and lock and secure their cars and store and secure their firearms responsibly. And then if something happens, sometimes out of their control, we just want to know about it.”

The police department recovers around 800 guns a year, Holbrook said. Of those, only about a quarter are reported as lost or stolen, meaning the rest are not reported.

Now, do I think it’s a good idea to contact police if one or more of your guns is stolen? Absolutely. Should it be a criminal offense not to do so? Absolutely not. Turning crime victims into criminals themselves because they failed to report a theft is absurd, and frankly, I’m not sure I buy the chief’s argument that these fines would merely be a “compliance tool.”

First of all, city officials should be asking why only about 1/4 of gun thefts are actually reported to police. My guess is that many of those gun owners simply don’t believe that law enforcement is going to do anything to get their guns back. Of the 200 guns that were reported missing last year, for instance, how many were Columbia police able to recover before they were used in a crime or wound up on the black market? Holbrook didn’t say, which makes me think that the figure is pretty paltry, all things considered.

As of a year ago, Columbia’s police department was short nearly 100 officers, with about half of the vacancies in the patrol division. It seems to me that a much better approach to reducing violence and solving crimes would be to fully staff the city’s police force instead of trying to criminalize being the victim of a break-in.

Besides the pragmatic concerns about Columbia’s latest gun control laws, it would also appear that the new ordinance runs afoul of the state’s preemption law as well. Under that statute, localities like Columbia are not allowed to impose any regulations on the “transfer, ownership, possession, carrying, or transportation of firearms, ammunition, components of firearms, or any combination of these things.”

It seems to me that the theft of a firearm falls under “transfer,” given that the gun has been transferred from its rightful owner to the criminal who stole it. The new ordinance also impacts “ownership” of firearms by requiring gun owners to report to police when their gun has gone missing, making the new ordinance doubly suspect under state law.

Again, I think that folks who have their guns stolen should report those thefts to police, even if the only result is the filing of a report. But that doesn’t mean that Columbia has the authority to try to compel that reporting with the threat of fines for non-compliance, and hopefully South Carolina’s Attorney General will once again step in to stop this illegitimate power grab the Columbia City Council.