The House vote on Wednesday inviting all South Carolinians to proudly pack a handgun on their hip — no training required, background check demanded or questions asked — was driven by the idea that it’s time to take back our Second Amendment rights from a government that has been steadily chipping away at them.
The reality is, well, different.
Set aside the federal government, where modest congressional restrictions have been more than outweighed by a breathtaking pro-gun reversal of long-established Supreme Court precedent, and other states, whose laws have no bearing on South Carolina, and consider our state’s history.
A quarter-century ago, the only South Carolinians who could legally carry guns were police and 2,700 other people who passed a criminal background check and demonstrated to SLED that they had a legitimate business need for them. They included people who had to make large bank deposits for their businesses, for instance, and of course judges and legislators because, well, SLED is a state agency.
That summer, the Legislature passed the “Law Abiding Citizens Self-Defense Act of 1996,” which, as I explained at the time, meant that “any adult who pays a $50 fee and passes an eight-hour training course and an FBI background check can carry a concealed weapon” in all but a handful of places. Today, 560,000 South Carolinians have concealed-carry permits.
The Legislature has tightened our gun laws a couple of times since then. After a botched shooting attempt at Ashley Hall by a woman who had just purchased a gun despite being legally adjudged mentally ill, the Legislature voted in 2013 to require state probate courts to send the names of people judged mentally ill to the FBI’s background check database. Two years later, the Legislature allowed judges to make temporary forfeiture of guns part of the criminal sentences for batterers.
With rare exceptions, though, the past 25 years have been a headlong rush to further liberalize our gun laws.
The gun lobby complained that it was just too onerous to spend eight whole hours learning about S.C. law on the use of deadly force, handgun safety and storage practices, so the Legislature scaled back the law to require training of unspecified duration.
The more fragile gun owners complained that they could get shot if they had to leave their guns in their cars when they went into bars, so rather than telling them that maybe they shouldn’t be frequenting those bars, the Legislature let them carry their guns into bars.
They complained about how inconvenient it was that they couldn’t carry their guns in Georgia, so the Legislature said, well, OK, we’ll let Georgia permit holders carry their guns in South Carolina (thus triggering reciprocity), even though their requirements for a gun permit are … well, similar to what the House now wants our requirements to be.
They complained that they shouldn’t have to back down from a fight, so the Legislature passed the “stand your ground” law, which says you can shoot someone whenever you feel threatened. Even if your fear is completely disconnected from reality. Even if you carelessly kill the wrong person. As happened in one high-profile case in the Midlands, where a judge agreed with S.C. House Democratic Leader Todd Rutherford that his client couldn’t be charged with a crime for mistakenly killing an innocent bystander. After his daughter was followed home. By a carful of menacing girls. Seriously.
As the prosecutor explained with only slight sarcasm, the law means someone who claims to fear for his life “could shoot a 4-year-old playing in her front yard and still be immune from prosecution.”
And now the gun lobby and its fellow travelers are complaining that people have to conceal their guns rather than proudly (or menacingly) display them for all the world to see. And they have to take a perfunctory training course. And pass a criminal background check.
So on Wednesday, 69 Republicans rode to the rescue of our possibly law-abiding gun owners (with no background checks, who’s to know?), voting to liberalize South Carolina’s gun laws. Yet again. Eleven Republicans joined 36 Democrats in voting no.
There are, unfortunately, some legislators who honestly believe the misleadingly named “Constitutional Carry” bill is a good idea. Who are so drunk on the Kool-Aid of conspiracy that they believe it’s their only hope of surviving the marauding gangs of deep-state agents who are coming to confiscate their guns. And strap N95s over their mouths. And noses.
Mostly, though, the people who voted for H.3096 are simply afraid of angering the gun lobby and the paranoid crowd they’ve suckered into believing their Orwellian vision of American dystopia.
And that’s the problem: Our legislators are afraid of offending the 20% of voters who control the GOP primaries, but they aren’t afraid of offending the majority of us: the rational South Carolinians, who aren’t part of either fringe, who oppose radical laws aimed at turning South Carolina into the Wild West — or turning it into California.
Of course, that’s our fault, because either we don’t vote in the Republican primary — which is where Republicans win or lose, just as the Democratic primary is where Democrats win or lose — or we don’t hold decisions like this against our legislators.
I’m not ready to say we should all vote against otherwise responsible representatives who supported H.3096.
But those of us who have an otherwise responsible Republican House member who supported this bill should reach out now and let him or her know how disappointed we are. And that we’ll be watching the next vote on this and other gun bills. And that we intend to vote in the Republican primary in 2022. And then we need to follow through.