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Bill to preempt any federal gun restrictions through SC's 'unorganized militia' advances

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S.C. State Sen. Kevin Johnson (left) and Tom Corbin chat ahead of a March, 23, 2021, Family and Veterans' subcommittee meeting at the S.C. Statehouse. Adam Benson/Staff

COLUMBIA — A Statehouse proposal aimed at ensuring South Carolinians can keep their weapons no matter what gun-control measures the White House or Congress might take won early backing in the state Senate. 

The bill attempts to buffer any future federal gun restrictions by classifying all guns and bullets legally owned by South Carolinians as weaponry of the state's unorganized militia. 

A 2-1 vote March 23 sent the bill to the Senate's full Veterans' Services Committee. 

State Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, who cast the lone "no" vote, called the proposal unnecessary nonsense.  

The measure, sponsored by Travelers Rest Republican Sen. Tom Corbin, adds language to an obscure 1881 state law regarding South Carolina's "unorganized militia" — to which all "able-bodied" citizens over age 17 automatically belong.

The governor has the authority to assemble that militia in times of war, rebellion or insurrection, though that's never happened.

There likely hasn't been a militia fighting in South Carolina "since Francis Marion and the swamp foxes were shooting at the British” in 1781 during the American Revolution, Corbin told reporters after the hearing.

Corbin sees his proposal, coming some 240 years after those swamp skirmishes, as a way of ensuring South Carolina's guns are never confiscated.  

It would give the state's "militia" members the right to buy and possess all types of firearms, ammunitions and their components — including magazines and clips — that were legal as of Dec. 30.

“At the end of the day, a federal government cannot disarm a state standing army,” Corbin told the subcommittee.

The panel's vote came a day after 10 people were gunned down at a Boulder, Colo., supermarket.

In response to the shooting, President Joe Biden renewed his push for stronger gun control laws, including a ban on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons.

"I don't need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common steps that will save lives in the future," Biden said at the White House. "We can close the loopholes in our background check system, including the Charleston loophole. That's one of the best tools we have right now to prevent gun violence."

The so-called "Charleston loophole" came to light after the Emanuel AME Church shooting in June 2015.

In 2015, Dylann Roof went to buy a gun legally from a Midlands shop. The sale should not have gone through because he was legally prohibited from buying the weapon, but his background check failed to find an arrest report indicating his drug use.

Since the background check went unfinished after the three-day waiting period, Roof was able to obtain a .45-caliber Glock handgun, which he used to gun down nine people.

On March 11, the U.S. House approved a measure extending the length of time for FBI background checks on firearms purchases — a move championed by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. Clyburn introduced the bill four times since the 2015 attack.

With so much gun violence across America, lawmakers do need to pass some sensible gun-control legislation, Johnson said. 

“I wholly believe in the Second Amendment, but this country is crazy,” said Johnson, adding that he has a concealed weapons permit. “We have homegrown terrorists, and I’m sure those folks who stormed the Capitol thought they were members of kind of a militia.”

This is the second time Corbin has made the proposal. His 2013 bill never got a vote on the Senate floor.

Corbin said the 2020 election, which gave Democrats control over the White House and both chambers of Congress, prompted him to try again. He said he didn't file his measure during the last four years because he wasn't concerned about gun bans when Donald Trump was president.

“With a Republican administration in control in Washington, I didn’t fear any gun confiscation,” Corbin told reporters after the subcommittee vote. “Had I sensed that, I would have filed the bill.”

The proposal comes as the South Carolina House recently approved a bill that would let trained gun owners with a concealed weapons permit carry their handgun openly in public.

A separate bill that would allow all adults who can legally own a gun to carry openly regardless of whether they hold a permit also recently advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee. It could be debated on the House floor next month.

Jamie Lovegrove reported from Columbia.

Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

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