State passes law hiding the identity of South Carolina's more than 61,300 concealed-weapons permit holders


State Rep. Chip Limehouse rarely takes his 9 mm pistol on public outings, but he likes having the option of packing heat for protection, particularly after controversial votes.

"I've had threats over the years because of some votes. Video poker was one," the Charleston Republican said.

Limehouse doesn't care if people know he has a concealed weapons permit. But he knows plenty of others who don't want to advertise that fact, and they shouldn't have to, he said. "I don't believe it's anyone's right to know because it's concealed."

Similar sentiments led to the recent passage of a law barring the public from finding out who can carry a concealed weapon in South Carolina. The measure, signed into law last week, exempts the names of more than 61,300 permit holders from release through the state's Freedom of Information Act. Access to that list is now limited to law enforcement or through court orders.

Gun-rights activists argue that publishing permit holders' names violates their privacy and subjects them to increased risk of violence or break-ins. Opponents to the measure maintain that those threats are largely illusory and that it is improper for government to issue licenses in secret.

"If government grants a privilege and creates a licensing scheme, then it's in the public interest to make sure that licensing scheme is being run properly," said Lucy Daglish, executive director of the Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The law, which took effect immediately, also contains a provision that requires anyone who already has a copy of the permit holders' list to destroy it, although the law contains no penalties for failing to feed the list through the shredder.

It's not like the list was that popular an item to begin with. Over the past five years, the State Law Enforcement Division has received just 27 requests for the list. State officials largely are depending on the honor system to ensure that those lists are destroyed.

Daglish called the requirement "just plain ludicrous and unconstitutional."

John Simpkins, an assistant professor at the Charleston School of Law, said there is very little the state can do to stop someone from using the list once it has entered the public domain. "To now close the door and say you cannot use what you rightfully requested I think is unenforceable."

Despite questions about enforceability, the measure garnered firm support in the state Legislature, where plenty of people are armed and ready: One in five lawmakers holds a concealed-weapons permit.

They are in good company. A host of prominent leaders, business magnates and others also are packing heat.

They range from state Supreme Court Justice John Henry Waller and Treasurer Converse Chellis to U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and Charleston City Councilman Robert Mitchell.

'Fair game for thugs'

The Rev. Jimmy Gallant, a police chaplain and Charleston City Council member, obtained a concealed-weapons permit a few years ago after attending a law enforcement conference where some suggested that chaplains should carry guns. It was in response to two unarmed chaplains being killed in California.

"You are out there and fair game for thugs," he said. "They think you are unarmed."

Gallant got the permit but has yet to carry a weapon with him or in his unmarked police car. He said he keeps a small semiautomatic weapon in his home.

Republican state Rep. Wallace Scarborough has had a concealed-weapons permit for eight years. His strong belief in the second amendment has not wavered, even in the face of his 2006 arrest for firing his pistol near utility workers who had ventured onto his parents' James Island property at night. Those charges were later dropped, and Scarborough continues to be a proud gun owner.

Scarborough said keeping the list of permit holders secret protects gun owners and the public at large. Before, thieves and burglars could get hold of the list and know which homes were protected by guns and which were not.

"I think this serves as a general deterrent," he said. "This way potential thieves and bad guys don't know who has a gun and who doesn't."

State Rep. Jim Merrill, a public relations executive who lives on Daniel Island, also is on the list. He took the training course last year. He said he does not carry a weapon, but "wants the bad guys to think I am."

Chellis, who carries a 9 mm and a .38 caliber revolver, said he sees nothing to be gained by telling people who's packing. "I don't know why the public needs that information. SLED is our watchdog on crime. They're the only ones who need to know."

A right to know

In adopting the measure, South Carolina joined 27 other states that protect the confidentiality of concealed-weapons permit holders. Similar legislation is pending in Alabama, Missouri and New York.

Ashley Varner, media liaison for the National Rifle Association, said such laws have become increasingly necessary to keep permit holders from "being abused in the public arena" by those who would publish their identities. These people already have been deemed trustworthy by the state to carry a gun, she said.

Brian Malte, state legislative director for the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, said newspapers in Florida, Texas and other states have uncovered instances in which the concealed-weapons permits were improperly issued to felons and others who had no business carrying a gun.

Barring the public from looking at the list of permit holders only increases the chance for mistakes, as most states don't routinely audit their records, he said.

"These people are getting permits to carry loaded handguns into public places," he said. "The public has a right to know how well the system is working for their own public safety."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Reach Ron Menchaca at 937-5724 or