S.C. women’s group advocates gun control

Margaret Kelly is part of the new group that has banded together to talk about gun control.

Grace Beahm

It’s an unusual development in a state whose residents generally champion their firearms: A group of women from South Carolina have banded together to fight for more gun control.

They are among a smattering of residents and groups driven by the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre to take such a public stand. So far, they’ve largely been ignored.

For many in Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, it’s their first political activity beyond voting. The reason they have gotten involved is simple.

“Sandy Hook,” said Margaret Kelly, a mother, molecular biologist and research scientist from Mount Pleasant. Her son was 6 years old when the Columbine High School shooting occurred in 1999. She remembered having to talk to him then about that.

“This time, moms were talking to 6-year-olds about 6-year-olds getting killed. The problems in this country have gotten completely out of control.”

Moms Demand Action members say they do not want to create obstacles for hunters, sportsmen or those who own a gun for their own protection.

But they say much more can and should be done to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. More can be done, they say, to restrict guns designed to kill large numbers of people at once.

The state group is a chapter of a national organization backed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has said he aims to do for gun control what Mothers Against Drunk Driving did to drive stricter laws on that issue.

Bloomberg didn’t hit his targets with earlier gun control efforts in South Carolina.

But Moms Demand Action members say they are determined to turn up the pressure on state and federal lawmakers for reforms they view as common sense.

It’s an uphill fight. At least a half-dozen bills concerning some sort of limit or control of firearms were introduced in the S.C. Legislature during the 2013 session. All of them languished in committee.

“There is certainly an interest in this issue among progressive women in this state; however, as the past few elections have shown this is a small, albeit passionate, group,” said Kendra Stewart, College of Charleston political science professor. Gun control as an issue has a gender gap — it’s supported by a higher percentage of women than men, she said. “In a state ranked last in the number of women serving in the state legislature it’s highly unlikely that we will see any policy movement around this issue in the near future.”

Erin Dando, a stay-at-home mother in Greenville, helped start up South Carolina’s chapter in the wake of the Sandy Hook killings in Connecticut in December.

“I could picture that happening at my school here in Greenville,” she said. “I felt that something had to change. There were 12 mass shootings in 2012.”

So far, the group has about 250 members in the state, and Dando said they include gun owners, those with concealed-weapons permits and non-gun owners from across the political spectrum.

She said one of the greatest challenges in South Carolina is broaching the subject of guns.

“People believe it is rude to even discuss gun safety, hence we aren’t talking about gun violence either,” she said. “Parents need to know it is OK that we ask another parent if they have a gun before our children go over to their house to play and even to ask how it is secured if they do. We also need to be telling our children what to do if they come across a gun: Don’t touch it, leave the room and tell an adult.”

Kelly was one of three women from South Carolina who visited Washington, D.C., in March in the “Moms Take the Hill” event, organized by those pushing for a new gun control bill.

She said the women could not get meetings initially with any U.S. House or Senate members from South Carolina and spent the day tagging along with their North Carolina counterparts. Toward the end, U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan’s office provided them with a meeting with a junior staffer who told the women that Duncan supported the Second Amendment.

“It’s not about me. It’s about a big problem,” Kelly said. “This is going to happen through voting. This is going to happen through people thinking it’s reasonable to do certain things.”

Kelly said she is not one who believes only police and soldiers should have guns, but she is concerned that the debate isn’t even happening. She pointed to a recent medical journal article about silencing the scientific community on gun research.

“There’s a responsibility with everything. Take prescription medicine,” Kelly said. “You need to have information. You have to amass as much information as possible to make a decision.”

Elizabeth Montgomery, a schoolteacher from Pawleys Island, spoke March 2 at a rally in Columbia. She also rallied in April with about 20 others outside U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s Mount Pleasant office.

Graham takes a Second Amendment right-to-bear-arms stance and has stated he owns an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

“We appreciate their time and interest on this subject,” said Kevin Bishop, a Graham spokesman. “People are welcome to protest. People protest all the time outside (Graham’s) office.”

The women’s concern lies not only with the national gun control debate but also with bills pending in the General Assembly.

One of their biggest focuses was a bill filed by state Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, that would have allowed people with concealed weapons permits to bring their guns inside restaurants that serve alcohol, provided the restaurant did not place a sign banning guns from its premises.

That might be a lost cause. The bill is widely expected to pass in the 2014 session that starts in January.

“It passed overwhelmingly in the Senate. It passed overwhelmingly in the House,” Bennett said. “I think it’s just a matter of ironing out a few differences between the (Senate and House) bills. It came back to us (in the Senate) just a little too late.”

Montgomery said she visited Georgetown County-area restaurants to talk with their owners about the bill. “Most restaurant owners aren’t aware of it,” she said. “But most of them said they would put up a sign banning the guns.”

The South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association doesn’t have a formal position on Bennett’s bill, said David McMillan, the board chairman.

“The association certainly agrees that guns and school don’t mix,” he said. The bill has an option for owners to opt out by posting a sign on the business. As long as that option stays, “we don’t have a problem with it.”

Bennett said that reasonable gun control measures can be advanced in the state; he pointed to a law passed in the 2013 session that allows law enforcement to collect mental health information during background checks for gun possession.

“I don’t think our citizenry are interested in gun control issues just for the sake of gun control. We are pretty Second Amendment-friendly,” he said.

State Sen. John Scott Jr., D-Richand County, stalled Bennett’s bill when he introduced last-minute amendments.

Given the gun rights climate, Scott said, “it would be very difficult to get people to pay attention to the issues of guns and gun control. They’re not really interested in talking about or understanding that more guns aren’t going to solve the problem.”

Bloomberg, who is finishing up his tenure as New York’s mayor, has waded into South Carolina waters before to advocate for greater gun restrictions, without much success.

In 2006, he launched a sting of gun sellers in at least 15 states, using private investigators to find whether out-of-state retailers were habitually allowing illegal sales, and that those weapons were ending up in New York street crimes.

The city eventually sued several of the sellers, including Summerville Pawn Shop owner Larry Mickalis, claiming negligence. Mickalis filed a countersuit, claiming he was defamed by the mayor labeling him as a “rogue” gun dealer.

Three years later, Mickalis pleaded guilty to a reduced federal gun sales charge — failing to keep accurate records — in a separate incident not directly related to his civil court fight with Bloomberg.

Kelly said these so-called “straw sales,” where people with clean records buy guns only to pass them along to those unable to buy guns, ranks among her biggest concerns.

“Some people say, ‘Why don’t we enforce the laws that we have?’ No 1, we don’t. No. 2, they’re not well written. And No. 3, they have loopholes. You don’t fix something that’s that broken,” she said. “Great change in this country has happened through the people. It will happen. Sandy Hook has galvanized large numbers of people. (Gun control opponents) will not win.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.