COLUMBIA- Gov. Nikki Haley expressed support for a bill Tuesday that would allow all South Carolinians to carry a weapon if they wanted to without having to go through training or a criminal background check.
Known as "constitutional carry," the issue is being pushed by S.C. Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, who is running for U.S. Senate. Under the law, gun owners would not have to pass the required training mandated by a Concealed Weapons Permit or be subject to a criminal background check. "We believe in those liberties and those rights," Haley said following a news conference on a new law that allows those with weapons permits to bring their firearms into a bar or restaurant that serves alcohol.
She said the right to carry a firearm is a safety issue.
"I think that criminals are dangerous," she said. "I've always believed that." She added: "That's a bill that does have legs."
The issue came up at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting recently, where some lawmakers, including Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said it didn't make sense to allow people to carry guns without training and a criminal background check. While it did not pass, the committee left the item on the agenda for another day.
Bright said South Carolina should be more like Arizona, where gun ownership is not controlled by the government. Even former felons are entitled to their Second Amendment rights, Bright said.
"Martha Stewart has a felony. Should she not be able to protect herself?" Bright asked. "This is the right to self-defense. We sit up in this ivory tower and make decisions. ... People make mistakes in their lives and you say, 'I'm going to fundamentally take away your right to defend yourself?' This debate is about 'Does the government know better or do the people know better?'"
At the same time on Tuesday, Haley sought to allay fears and misconceptions about reform of the state's concealed carry law, which allows those with Concealed Weapons Permits to go into restaurants and bars that serve alcohol. Under the bill, those with permits who are carrying a firearm are not allowed to consume alcohol. About 200,000 South Carolinians have the weapons permit - Haley is one of them.
Just like any business under current law, restaurant and bar owners can prohibit those with weapons from coming into their business by posting a designated sign.
"I want to ask my friends in the press to partner with me on something," Haley said at the beginning of her news conference. "There have been some misconceptions about this bill. ... This is not a guns-in-bars bill. It was never a guns-in-bars bill. It is illegal to carry and consume alcohol. And those of us who have a CWP would not consider carrying and consuming alcohol."
Still, restaurant and bar owners said they fear what the presence of guns could mean for their business, regardless of whether the gun owner is responsible or not.
Haley stood with lawmakers and recognized Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, and Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, who pushed the bill in their respective chambers and received ceremonial pens. She also recognized National Rifle Association lobbyist Anthony Roulette and presented him with a pen for his work on the bill.
Haley and others said the new law is about safety.
"Crime goes down because criminals know they have to be more careful," Haley said.
Pitts, a retired police officer, was Haley's instructor when she took the CWP training. "We all have a right to defend ourselves," he said. "You are your first line of defense."
Not all agreed. Elaine Cooper, 60, told Haley that "it's not a nice day in South Carolina." Cooper, who said she is a member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, said many business owners were fearful of the law. The advocacy group is pushing businesses to put up signs so that those with concealed weapons cannot enter.
"I don't understand where Nikki Haley is coming from," Cooper said later. She said in three decades in South Carolina, "I've never been threatened, I've never seen any violence."
If a CWP holder is armed and caught drinking in a restaurant or bar, the offender could lose his or her concealed weapons permit for five years and face a misdemeanor charge that could carry up to two years in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. The bill also does away with an eight-hour training class to obtain a CWP, although the state will still mandate the same criteria, centered on gun safety and use, as it had before.
Bennett cited the law's penalties. "It's a zero tolerance (policy)," he said. "Guns and alcohol do not mix."