‘Assault-weapons’ bill stands little chance

Alongside bills in the General Assembly to loosen concealed-weapons laws and to exempt South Carolina from federal regulation of guns made in the state, a bill to ban “assault weapons” waits its third or fourth long shot at a vote.Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, first filed the bill in 2010, concerned about military-style, semi-automatic guns turning up on the streets.The bill defines “assault weapons” as semi-automatic centerfire with detachable magazines holding 21 or more rounds and semi-automatic shotguns holding more than six rounds.Gilliard did it as much for the safety of law enforcement as the community, he said. “If our law enforcement officials are not safe, how can our community be?”The bill stands little chance in an assembly of largely conservative, generally pro-gun-rights legislators and lobbies. One local legislator, mistakenly named by Gilliard as a potential supporter, curtly rebutted that and demanded that his name not appear in the story.But Gilliard thinks the Connecticut shootings give the bill a new weight.“Taking an assault rifle hunting is like taking a cannon to shoot birds,” he said. “We have to address these issues. If we don’t, we’re going to have more of these incidents like in Connecticut.”

“Gun permit” is a misnomer. No permit is required to own a firearm in South Carolina. If the gun is purchased privately, there’s literally no record.

What it takes to get a gun in S.C.:

As a gift or from a private seller: Money or a thank you. No permit is required.From a registered dealer: Background check.* Usually takes about 15 minutes. The FBI is contacted to check whether the buyer has a felony record, which would prohibit the sale. Technically, some mental illnesses also prohibit a sale, but the only way federal authorities would have access to that record is if it were part of a felony conviction.At a gun show: Depends. Registered dealers at the shows are required to do checks; individual sellers are not. That creates what some consider a loophole allowing unchecked sales.*Federal agencies are required to remove the record of a background check after 24 hours. The dealer is required to keep the record of a sale for 20 years if the sale is approved.Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives, attorney Arthur Aiken.

The shooting of 26 people, including 20 children, on Dec. 14 at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school has sparked calls for tighter restrictions on military-style rifles. Others also decried the deaths but defended gun ownership rights.

State and federal laws

In this state, unless you have been convicted of a felony, you can readily buy a firearm. Even if you have been convicted of a felony, obtaining a gun is relatively easy.

State laws are mostly confined to carrying concealed weapons; those applicants must undergo a national “instant” criminal background check by the FBI, as well as attend classes.

South Carolina’s gun laws are ranked among the weakest in the nation in a 2011 survey by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. They “help feed the illegal gun market and allow the sale of guns without background checks,” the survey said.

Under federal law, a background check is required to buy any gun from a registered dealer. But federal agencies are required to remove the information in 24 hours. The dealer must keep a record of approved sales for 20 years and a denial for five years, according to federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives documents.

Tracing guns

For private gun sales or gifts, “there’s absolutely no background check,” said Arthur Aiken, a Columbia attorney who defends clients against gun-law violations.

ATF trace statistics show that guns used in crimes that were bought on the “primary,” or recorded, market moved rapidly to the secondary, unregulated market, said Colin Miller, evidence law professor at the University of South Carolina Law School.

“That’s where the problem is,” he said, and there is no easy solution. In South Carolina, a person can buy multiple guns during a single sale, then distribute them without checks or a record.

Military-style rifles

Firearms or explosives regulated under the National Firearms Act require federal permits, under a law that dates back to Prohibition. Machine guns and short-barreled shotguns fall under the act, but military-style rifles such as the AR-15 used in the Newtown shootings do not, because they are not automatic-fire weapons.

The rifles are semi-automatic, meaning the trigger must be squeezed each time a shot is fired.

Aiken, a lifelong hunter and target shooter, favors somewhat tighter oversight on gun sales. But banning semi-automatic, military-style firearms would take legitimate hunting guns off the shelf, and almost certainly not remove all the guns capable of mass shootings, he said.

“A ban might be a symbolic effort that makes people feel better, but I don’t see where it makes a lot of difference,” he said.

Requiring background checks at gun shows is “probably a good idea,” Aiken said. But because private sales or gifts are handled privately, “I don’t know what to do about that.”

In the wrong hands

Aiken keeps his firearms under lock and key because he has children, and he thinks most gun owners are careful and responsible about that, and it wouldn’t hurt if the National Rifle Association or other gun organizations were more vocal about encouraging it.

To Aiken, the problem isn’t any type of firearm per se, it’s keeping guns out of the hands of criminals or people who are mentally disturbed. The last four prominent mass shooting in the nation involved people with mental problems, he said.

He has defended clients with severe mental disturbances who would have been under state care, except that mental health dollars are among the first cuts made when budgets are cut.

“It’s two issues — what do we do about guns and what do we do about mental health,” he said. Both need to be addressed. “We just have to be reasonable about what we do.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.