S.C. takes ‘first step’ on domestic violence

Surrounded by advocates and lawmakers in the Statehouse lobby, Gov. Nikki Haley on Thursday signs the domestic violence bill stiffening penalties, barring offenders from possessing guns and requiring education.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina on Thursday took a step toward better protecting victims and punishing batterers after more than a decade as one of the deadliest states for women at the hands of men.

Surrounded by lawmakers who fought for tougher penalties and a partial gun ban for offenders and victims advocates in the Statehouse lobby, Gov. Nikki Haley signed the domestic violence reform bill passed by the House and Senate after months of brinkmanship and negotiations.

“A huge statement is being made today and that is that South Carolina is no longer thinking about the convenience of the abuser,” Haley said. “South Carolina is thinking about strengthening the survivor.”

State Attorney General Alan Wilson, who lobbied lawmakers to give prosecutors the tools they needed to lock up repeat offenders and get others into treatment, said Thursday the law represents a milestone for South Carolina.

“While the bill is not perfect and is not the last measure of domestic violence reform needed, it is a giant first step in combatting domestic violence,” Wilson said in a written statement. “I look forward to working with Gov. Haley and members of the General Assembly in the future to take the additional steps necessary to further combat this heinous crime in South Carolina.”

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said the bill marked progress even if it didn’t achieve all he hoped it would.

“I am disappointed that the General Assembly had the opportunity to do something grand and actually save lives, and I simply don’t believe that this bill will do that because we minimized the counseling, we took out the risk assessors,” the Columbia Democrat said. “We essentially did what we’ve always done, which is raise penalties and hope that works. And it never does.”

The bill had a turbulent journey to Haley’s desk, beginning with lawmakers promising in January to get tough on abusers in response to The Post and Courier’s Pulitzer Prize winning series “Till Death Do Us Part,” which revealed that more than 300 women had been killed by husbands, exes and boyfriends over the past decade.

Fulfilling that promise, though, wasn’t easy.

The Senate passed a bill first, focusing mainly on giving abusers fewer second chances by making it easier to send them to jail and taking away the worst offenders’ guns. The partial gun ban was a tough sell, with a handful of Upstate lawmakers vehemently objecting to what they argued was simply a “gun grab” that violated the Constitution.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, the bill’s chief sponsor, and Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, were instrumental in overcoming opposition. Martin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, stood by the gun ban as essential, while Shealy made an emotional plea to colleagues, relating how her sister nearly was killed by her abusive husband.

“It’s been an emotional day,” Shealy said after the bill took effect. “I think it’s the best that happened in the Legislature this year. We can go home and be glad that we did something.”

But the House had its own ideas about how to combat domestic violence. Led by Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, the House had taken a parallel path that eschewed banning guns in favor of education in schools to try to change the culture of violence that perpetuated the problem from generation to generation.

Advocates denounced the House’s take on the bill, claiming it had put batters’ gun rights ahead of women’s lives. The criticism hardened the battle lines between the Senate and House.

With the House and Senate passing separate bills in the final weeks before the Legislature adjourned for the year, the promise to reform domestic violence laws was running out of time, Martin warned.

But House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, was working behind the scenes to forge a compromise even as the prospects for passing a domestic violence bill dimmed. Lucas brought together Erickson and Senate negotiators to find common ground.

The result was a bill that some referred to as somewhat weakened, but kept the gun ban, stiffened some penalties and recognized the importance of changing the cultural aspects of domestic violence.

“This is one of the largest efforts that I’ve been able to see the House and Senate come together to work on, bipartisanship, with no hang ups on authorship,” Erickson said Thursday. “And we’ll keep working. This is just phase one.”

Martin also praised the shared accomplishment.

“Everybody who was involved was determined to see it through,” Martin said. “Outside of our traditional business, this is the year that will be remembered as the year that we passed the bill.”

At the signing, Haley credited The Post and Courier for exposing the deadliness of domestic violence and continuing to keep the issue in the forefront.

“I think not only was it educational for our staff but for everybody across the state on why we can’t be complacent with South Carolina being at the top of the list,” Haley said.