S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson sent Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin a letter calling for the City of Columbia to repeal a pair of ordinances related to guns.
"In an effort to uphold the rule of law and to ensure the protection of taxpayers, this office strongly urges that these ordinances be repealed," Wilson wrote Tuesday. "The ordinances not only undermine state law, but undercut the Second Amendment. They are an open invitation to costly litigation for which the municipal taxpayers must pay."
The Republican attorney general cited two city ordinances that were passed earlier this year: one that prohibits the possession of firearms within 1,000 feet of a school, and another that allows for the seizure of guns from individuals who have an extreme risk protection order against them, commonly known as a "red flag" law.
Columbia City Council passed ordinances on both gun issues in September.
Wilson bolstered his letter to the mayor with a pair of opinions from his office. State Rep. Jonathon Hill, a Republican from Townville, requested an attorney general's opinion on Columbia's extreme risk protection order law, while State Sen. Ronnie Cromer, a Republican from Prosperity, and state Rep. Bill Hixon, a Republican from North Augusta, asked for an opinion on the school zone ordinance.
In both opinions, among other findings, the attorney general's office says that state law takes precedent in terms of firearm regulation.
"With but a few exceptions, a city or county cannot interject itself into the regulation of firearms," Wilson writes. "Yet, the City of Columbia has done so repeatedly."
In a statement late Tuesday afternoon, Benjamin said that he would "like to respectfully disagree with the attorney general office’s opinion that the City of Columbia does not have the authority to pass ordinances that protect its citizens from gun violence."
Benjamin, an attorney, said the city's recent gun ordinances are a "valid and necessary" approach to helping keep citizens safe. He insists there is room in the law for the city to address gun issues, adding that the city's measures "compliment" both state and federal law.
"As mayor and City Council, we have the authority under the South Carolina Constitution, our state code of laws, as well as a moral obligation to do whatever is in our power to protect the people and ensure their safety and enjoyment of life," Benjamin said.
On Tuesday, Hill lauded Wilson's letter to Benjamin and the attorney general's office opinion on the extreme risk gun ordinance.
“Mayor Benjamin and the Columbia City Council pose an extreme risk to the right to self defense, not only in the city limits, but also statewide," Hill, an Anderson County Republican, said in a statement. "Not only have they openly defied state law by passing this ordinance, but they have also completely circumvented the human rights protections afforded by the United States Constitution in the second, fourth, and fifth amendments.”
Tuesday's letter from Wilson wasn't the first time the attorney general has admonished Benjamin and the Columbia City Council on gun laws this year.
In September, Wilson's office issued an opinion that an ordinance the city passed in August making so-called "ghost guns" a public nuisance was likely unlawful.
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.”
Those violating the ghost gun portion of the nuisance law could be fined or get 30 days in jail.
It was Hill who also requested an attorney general's opinion in the ghost gun matter. In September, Assistant Attorney General David Jones provided one.
“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 wrote that 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 his Tuesday letter to Benjamin, Wilson asserted that the regulation of firearms is "beyond the reach of a municipality or county."
Benjamin has been bullish on gun issues in Columbia. Aside from the aforementioned ordinances, he also pushed through a ban on gun bump stocks — devices that can make a semi-automatic weapon perform like an automatic weapon — in the city. And he helped usher in the use of ShotSpotter in Columbia, technology that notifies officers of the location of gunshots in near real time.
"In America right now, we have 320 million people and 400 million guns,” the mayor said in a November Free Times piece about ShotSpotter. “A lot of those guns are in the hands of people who don’t deserve them and shouldn’t have them lawfully. Every tool that we can possibly leverage to get our law enforcement officers what they need to keep our community safe, we need to do it.”