South Carolina Senate Opens Debate on Constitutional Carry Bill

AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins

Constitutional Carry could become the law of the land in several more states this year, and the first test is coming in South Carolina. Last year the House overwhelmingly approved a measure that would allow lawful gun owners to legally carry their firearm without the need for a government-issued permission slip, but the bill never had a final vote in the state Senate.

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On Wednesday, however, the upper chamber finally started debating H3594. Passage of the measure is far from guaranteed, even with a Republican supermajority, and Democrats are trying to mount a filibuster to keep the bill from getting a final vote. South Carolina Carry is also alerting its members that even if a filibuster fails, there could be dozens of amendments filed that, if approved, would send H3594 back to the House for further debate.

If the House votes to concur, the bill gets ratified and goes to the Governor for signature. If the House votes to NOT concur, then a message is sent to the Senate and they vote to either go forward without amendments or they insist that the bill go into “conference”, which is basically like arbitration. In simple terms, selected persons from the House and Senate hammer out a compromise on how the bill should read. It then either “dies” in conference committee or the committee comes up with a compromise and they send recommendations back to the House and Senate to then be voted on for ratification again.

One of the first topics of debate on H3594 had nothing to do with concealed carry itself. Instead, Democrats pushed bill sponsor Sen. Shane Martin amend the bill to add in more prohibitions on legal gun ownership. The House bill already has language forbidding gun possession for anyone convicted of a crime punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of more than one year, which is problematic in its own way.

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In fact, that language may not survive the Supreme Court’s pending decision in Rahimi, given that some Court watchers expect justices to outline a standard for prohibition that relies on a dangerousness standard rather than one based on the potential prison sentence for a conviction. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has already ruled that a Pennsylvania man convicted of falsifying information on a food stamp application shouldn’t have lost his right to keep and bear arms just because that crime was punishable by more than a year in prison at the time. 

In a perfect world, lawmakers would wait on Rahimi to craft any modifications to the state’s current felon-in-possession law, which currently forbids anyone convicted of a violent felony from possessing a firearm, but I doubt that’s going to happen. Instead, it looks like most of the debate is going to focus on extraneous arguments  about where lawful gun owners can carry and whether permitless carry will somehow lead to more prohibited persons toting guns around. 

Opponents of the bill believe this would increase violence in the community, saying guns might fall into the wrong hands.

“I don’t think there are any of us in here who don’t want to protect our second amendment rights but we also want to do our due diligence to keep our constituents and communities safe,” said Sen. Mia McLeod.

If McLeod is doing her due diligence then she must be aware of the fact that there are already 27 other states with permitless carry laws in place, and none of them have turned into the “Wild West”. In Ohio, six of the state’s eight largest cities saw declines in homicides in the law’s first year, while other cities in Constitutional Carry states like Atlanta and Miami saw dramatic declines in their homicide rates as well. In fact, Miami recorded the fewest homicides since 1947, according to its mayor.

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I’m not even sure why McLeod would suggest that permitless carry would lead to guns getting into the hands of criminals, given that as the bill is currently written it actually expands the category of prohibited persons. The bill also doesn’t change where folks can carry, though opponents are trying to make that an issue as well.

Democratic Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a former prosecutor from Columbia who says he has a concealed weapons permit and sometimes carries a gun for his safety, asked Martin if he is willing to remove the ban on weapons in the Statehouse so people would have the same right to carry weapons as the do in public.

Martin said he thinks the Second Amendment means that is OK.

“Anyone can strap one on and sit up there, Senator from Spartanburg,” Harpootlian said, motioning at the Senate gallery. “It will also allow us to strap on one, so if they start firing on us, we can fire back.”

Again, there are plenty of state capitol buildings where lawful gun owners are perfectly free to carry, and Harpootlian can’t point to any real issues in any of them, but that’s still beside the point. There are any number of “gun-free zones” in South Carolina that should disappear, including parks, publicly owned buildings, and establishments where alcohol is served, but a debate over those “sensitive places” would be best left to a separate bill.

Opponents of Constitutional Carry are going to toss out all kinds of screwy arguments to distract from the fundamental question around H3594: more than half the country already allows for lawful gun owners to both keep and bear arms without first having to beg for permission from the State, so why shouldn’t lawmakers provide those same protections for residents of the Palmetto State? Unless they think their constituents are less responsible than gun owners in states like Georgia, Texas, and Florida, there’s no good reason to oppose Constitutional Carry in South Carolina.

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