Mayor Benjamin Power Issue 2018

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. File

The South Carolina Attorney General's Office has issued an opinion that an ordinance Columbia City Council passed in August regarding so-called "ghost guns" likely violates state law.

On Aug. 6, City Council passed final reading on a measure that added ghost guns to the city's nuisance ordinance. The city defines a ghost gun as "a homemade firearm which was created or assembled without a serial number." Council's law stated that "any act, structure, device, or location which is used for the manufacture, assembly, storage, warehousing, transfer, distribution or sale of one or more ghost guns" would be considered a "nuisance affecting public health."

Mayor Steve Benjamin says those violating the ghost gun portion of the nuisance law could be fined or get 30 days in jail.

State Rep. Jonathon Hill, a pro-gun Upstate Republican, asked state Attorney General Alan Wilson's office for an opinion as to the legality of the city's ghost gun measure. On Sept. 19, the AG's office responded, with Assistant Attorney General David S. Jones penning an opinion. 

Jones concludes that the city's ordinance is presumed constitutional and could only be set aside by a court. But he still opines that it likely violates state law.

"To say that this ordinance does not regulate a class of firearms, but instead the act of storing those firearms or the structure in which it is stored, is a distinction without a difference," Jones writes. "Instead, we believe that a court probably would find that the purpose and effect of the ordinance is to regulate the 'transfer, ownership, possession, carrying or transportation of certain firearms' in a manner prohibited by state law."

Jones goes on to write that, while the AG's office "understands and appreciates the city's desire to protect public safety," what the city hopes to accomplish with the law "is a matter for the state Legislature exclusively and cannot be set at the local level."

In a statement, Hill says he hopes the attorney general's office will work to keep cities from going too far with gun laws.

“I appreciate this thorough examination of this ordinance and of the laws of this state, and I now call on Attorney General Wilson, as chief prosecutor of South Carolina, to take the necessary legal actions to enforce state law and prevent further overreaches by local government officials," Hill says.

When reached by Free Times, Benjamin — who has been bullish on a number of gun measures at the city level — defended the city's ghost gun ordinance.

"I stand behind it absolutely, 100 percent," Benjamin says of the city ordinance. "This is good law. It is consistent with the federal Constitution, the state Constitution and state law. ... My oath of office is to protect the life, health and safety of the people of Columbia, and I aim to do that. This ordinance was carefully crafted to ensure that we are able to keep firearms that are not traceable by law enforcement off the streets of our city. It makes sense. 

"The reality is that the pace of our laws and policy-making need to keep up with technology."

Benjamin says the city is concerned about people ordering parts of guns, then using 3D printers and constructing a firearm. 

The mayor says that the city "disagrees" with the AG's opinion.

"The state law speaks very clearly that if a serial number is obliterated on a firearm, it is illegal to do so," Benjamin says. "A logical person would also conclude that a firearm without a serial number would also be against the public interest."

Benjamin, who owns multiple firearms, insists he is not against guns in principle.

"This isn't about Second Amendment rights," Benjamin says. "This is about the fact that, with gun rights come gun responsibilities."

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation on our Free Times Facebook page.