COLUMBIA - Several states, including South Carolina, have drafted and adopted laws that give people wide latitude to shoot an attacker, carry a concealed weapon and buy guns and ammunition with few restrictions.
Now a new law is being pushed that many gun advocates and members of law enforcement say worries them even more than past gun-rights measures.
Whether South Carolina joins Arizona, Alaska, Wyoming and Vermont and becomes the fifth state to embrace a broad "constitutional carry" law lies first in the hands of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, which plans to take up the issue this week. The measure, sponsored by state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, would mean that getting a permit to carry a concealed weapon in South Carolina would be voluntary. Under the measure, anyone could carry a handgun - either concealed or in the open - and background checks and training would no longer be required.
The proposal, backed by the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups, has confounded advocates and law enforcement officials, who say a permit isn't an onerous requirement for someone who wants to carry a weapon. "What that means in practice is that law enforcement dealing with someone in public who is carrying a gun have no way to verify that individual's criminal or mental health history until they have actually committed a crime, and that might be too late," said Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Supporters of the measure include Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who could claim a significant victory in the broadening of gun rights in the Palmetto State if such a measure were approved by the Legislature. Haley said Tuesday that she supported the measure, after she signed a law that allows concealed-weapons permit holders to carry a weapon into restaurants and bars that serve alcohol, provided that those carrying don't drink.
More guns means more people think twice about committing a crime, she said.
"I think that criminals are dangerous," Haley said. "I've always believed that."
For Bright, it's about the Second Amendment. Bright doesn't carry a gun. He doesn't have the required concealed-weapons permit, he said, because he doesn't think he should have to get approval from the government to exercise his Constitutional right to bear arms.
"It's a liberty issue and people should be able to choose how they carry their weapon and how they defend themselves," Bright said.
Other safeguards would remain under the proposed measure. When a gun is bought from a licensed dealer, buyers are subject to a background check, which also allows sellers to see if the buyer has a history of mental illness or violent crime. In addition to the background check, the permitting process includes training.
However, sales at gun shows and private sales between two people do not necessarily require background checks.
Under current state law, guns cannot be carried onto school grounds and businesses can refuse entry to those with weapons. None of those restrictions would change, Bright said.
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon can argue both sides of the issue.
Most gun violence is committed with guns that are illegally owned and possessed - outside of the system completely. Many are suicides, national data show.
He and gun-rights advocates say that while about 40 percent of weapons nationally are purchased by private means or at gun shows they are for the most part legal sales by law-abiding citizens.
But the idea of anyone being able to carry a weapon provides too many difficult scenarios for a police officer, Cannon said. The societal effects are also troubling. He said he wouldn't want his wife out shopping to look over and see a man with a gun strapped to his hip.
"By and large, it's not the people who are legally owning and possessing a firearm that are the problem," Cannon said. "It's distinguishing the good guys and the bad guys. And that's hard enough to do as it is."
Lax gun restrictions
South Carolina has some of the most lax gun restrictions in the country. Out of 50 states, the state ranks 15th in gun-related violence, according to the Violence Policy Center, a non-profit that advocates on gun issues. Arizona ranks 11th. Those rankings are based on 2010 statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control.
The policy center also takes exception to gun advocates' claim that those who carry are law-abiding citizens.
Six people have been killed since 2007 in South Carolina by those with concealed-weapons permits - just a fraction of the likely total because there is no official data on the issue, according to the center.
Combined with the state's "stand your ground" law, which grants wide latitude for people to use deadly force to defend themselves, police and prosecutors often face thorny legal issues in determining the difference between self-defense and murder.
In June, Ronald Reid, while seeking cover, drew his .380-caliber Smith & Wesson Bodyguard, a compact pistol, outside a Charleston motorcycle equipment shop. He channeled what he learned during a class he took before he applied for a concealed weapons permit. He squared up to his target, aimed at the gunman's chest and squeezed the trigger.
One bullet hit the man's heart, and he crumpled. Reid figured that the man was dead before he hit the pavement.
The father of three doesn't like telling that story. But he thought that the evidence and the witnesses would support his account.
The police didn't believe him. Detectives thought he had been involved in a skirmish between members of two rival motorcycle clubs, and if that were the case, he didn't have the right to defend himself.
Reid had shot the man, police said, who was just trying to defend his friend from Reid and others who had ganged up and beaten him.
The case is awaiting trial.
Cannon said the current concealed-weapons permit is problematic enough for police officers who, when they find out someone has a weapon in their car after a traffic stop, struggle with how to handle the situation.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said he was discouraged to see that the General Assembly did away with a requirement for an 8-hour training class to obtain a concealed-weapons permit - a modest requirement for handling a weapon, he said. The same training criteria is still required to be taught, however.
"I'm not opposed to firearms or people who have firearms," Mullen said. "I think there's a balance." But he said that "constitutional carry" goes too far. "Lots of people say 'the bad guys already carry guns,'" he said. " What I would say is, they don't carry guns to the extent they will."
Mass shootings - the school shooting in Newtown and Virginia Tech slaying among them - prompt a lot of soul searching and an appeal for gun restrictions. After Newtown, President Obama and some in Congress unsuccessfully pushed for further gun restrictions.
Instead, with the notable exceptions of New York, Connecticut and Maryland, gun rights have been expanded across the country, said Stephen Halbrook, a pro-gun rights attorney who has argued several gun and Second Amendment cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Crime, in general, is also at an all-time low across the country.
Shooting deaths of police officers have reached a more than 60-year low, Halbrook said. "That's been pretty incredible," he said. "And there's been more gun ownership than ever before in this country's history."
Many, including those in South Carolina, say the expansion of gun rights has gone too far. The concealed-weapons permit debates recently and when it was first passed in the 1990s have some safeguards. South Carolina has earned an "F" from advocacy groups who grade states on how easy it is for weapons to end up in the wrong hands.
The latest debate over the right for anyone to carry a weapon is one state Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, would prefer not to have. He asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to kill the measure but didn't have the votes.
"It'd be really bad," Scott said of the issue. "People would be strapped like a westerner. You got a gun on your side and so does the other guy. Who walks away? A lot of innocent people are going to get killed."
Reach Jeremy Borden at 843-708-5837.
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