A new national study underscores why South Carolina is experiencing such a problem with gun violence.
As The Post and Courier’s Ema Rose Schumer reports, our state had the fourth-highest rate of personally reported gun thefts in the country over the past five years. The study by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that an average of 7,825 guns were reported stolen annually in South Carolina. That's 151 gun theft victims for every 100,000 people.
That finding isn’t terribly surprising. It comes on the heels of a report last year by the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety that found on a per-capita basis, Columbia had more guns taken from cars than all but two other U.S. cities. It was followed by North Charleston at No. 4, Greenville at No. 9 and Charleston at No. 16.
Indeed, bad guys stealing our guns and using them against us in crimes is one of the three main reasons that police and prosecutors cite for crimes petty and large. The two others are what police call revolving-door justice problems: Bad guys are getting let out on bail to commit more crimes before they're even tried, and we're getting little benefit from a law that prohibits criminals from possessing guns because it's too limited and violators are only getting a slap on the wrist.
The bail bond problem is complicated and requires a mix of solutions, which we will discuss in a separate editorial soon. The two others have some obvious and easy solutions.
For the gun thefts, we should follow the lead of 15 other states that require gun owners to file a police report if their gun is lost or stolen. That doesn’t infringe on the rights of any law-abiding citizens, but it does give police more information to solve crimes and keep us safer.
Lawmakers also should hold gun owners responsible if someone steals their gun from their unlocked vehicle — which Charleston police say occurred in nearly 9 out of 10 reported gun thefts in the city last year.
The problem with criminals getting a slap on the wrist for illegal gun possession is even easier to solve: Increase the penalties.
The good news is that the S.C. House just voted to do two of those things.
A measure representatives passed last week creates graduated penalties for illegal possession of guns, and it applies the so-called “felon in possession of a weapon” law to cover more criminals. The current law applies only to those convicted of a short-list of crimes classified as violent; the change would make gun possession a crime for anyone convicted of all but a few crimes that carry a sentence of more than a year in prison.
Additionally, the current penalty — a fine of up to $2,000 or imprisonment of up to five years, regardless of how many times someone is convicted — would be changed to eliminate the option of a fine and add a mandatory sentence of five years and up to 20 years for a second offense, and a mandatory sentence of 10 years and up to 30 years for third offense.
Lawmakers also voted to require gun owners to report to police within 30 days if their guns are lost or stolen — although the provision doesn’t carry a penalty, and it says nothing about gun owners who invite the theft by giving criminals easy access to their weapons.
The bad news is that these life-saving provisions are attached to dangerous legislation that would let people carry guns in public without any training or background checks.
Worse is what appears to be the motivation for adding the felon in possession provision to H.3594. Police have been among the most vocal opponents of even less dangerous versions of what supporters call the “constitutional carry” bill, but as The Post and Courier’s Seanna Adcox reports, most police stayed neutral during this year’s debate after sponsors added the graduated penalties for illegal gun possession.
The bill’s supporters — largely lawmakers who claim to support our police — should be ashamed of putting our law enforcement leaders in a position where they believed they had to remain silent over legislation they know will make our state more dangerous in order to get legislative support for changes that will make us safer.
The rest of us should refuse to accept this cynical bargain. The Senate should once again reject the House’s invitation to lawlessness and instead pass stand-alone bills to create graduated penalties for illegal possession of guns and to require people to report stolen guns to police. Senators should add some penalties for people who violate the reporting requirement, and ideally some penalties for people who leave their guns in their cars to be stolen.
And the House shouldn’t wait for the Senate to send over those bills. It should make amends for the shameful way it has treated police by passing those bills first.
Click here for more opinion content from The Post and Courier.