Abuse bill may require gun compromise

The victims of domestic violence in South Carolina are represented with silhouettes during the annual Silent Witness program at the Statehouse.

COLUMBIA — Senators working on toughening domestic violence laws were forced to take a step back Thursday to try to work out a compromise between those who want to ban batterers from possessing guns and those who fear it encroaches on Second Amendment rights.

Sen. Larry Martin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the bill’s sponsor, said he is reluctant to weaken the proposed ban on anyone convicted of domestic violence having a firearm for a decade, but concessions might be necessary to get it passed.

“If that brings enough people on board to pass the bill, we may have to speak our piece on it,” Martin said.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, is expected to file an amendment next week that would give judges the discretion to decide whether to take guns away from first-time offenders convicted of third-degree domestic violence.

“I think the judge ought to have discretion,” Campsen said. “Gun rights are important for self-defense, for people who are outdoorsmen. It should not be taken away lightly.”

He also said that the amendment could make it less likely that senators who have objected to the ban and have tried to strip it from the bill will continue to try to block it.

“I think my amendment will help the bill win support.”

Sara Barber, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said the proposed amendment would severely weaken the bill in a state where gun violence plays a pronounced role in domestic homicides.

Studies have shown that a woman is five times more likely to be killed in a domestic confrontation if a gun is in the house, Barber said. Since August, 22 people have been killed in domestic violence in South Carolina, and 73 percent of those killings have involved a gun, according to a Post and Courier analysis.

“If you have been convicted of third-degree, you have made a choice to commit that crime,” she said. “You have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted of a violent crime against your family. I think it’s common sense that you would lose your gun rights. In effect, you have chosen to give those rights away.”

The bill would simply bring the state in line with federal law, Barber said.

Federal law bars anyone convicted of domestic violence from possessing a gun, but, other than voluntary compliance, there is no enforcement, victims advocates have argued. A state ban is needed so that local and state law enforcement agencies can ensure offenders give up their weapons.

Martin, R-Pickens, has said the gun ban is crucial to protecting women in a state that consistently ranks as one of the deadliest for domestic violence victims. The Legislature’s current effort to strengthen penalties and the appointment of a task force to look at the culture of violence that perpetuates it are credited to the Post and Courier’s series “Till Death Do Us Part” last year.

The newspaper’s series revealed that more than 300 women in South Carolina have been killed by their husbands, exes and live-in boyfriends over the past decade and that guns were used in nearly two-thirds of the deaths.

Martin argued strenuously for the gun ban, which currently is not part of the domestic violence bill in the House.

The Senate on Wednesday defeated an attempt to strip the gun ban from the bill by a 45-5 vote after hours of heated debate that included claims Martin was a pawn of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who bankrolls the gun-control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.

Sen. Tom Corbin, R-Travelers Rest, called the proposed ban “nothing but a big gun grab,” the Anderson Independent Mail reported.

Martin said the debate escalated when Corbin suggested that he was sponsoring the bill on Bloomberg’s behalf.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Martin said. “What’s driving my sponsorship of this bill is the fact that we happen to be consistently No. 1 in the nation for domestic violence deaths, and it doesn’t seem to be improving with anything else we do.”

In addition to the gun ban, the Senate bill would establish three degrees of domestic violence offenses with stiffer jail sentences based on the level of violence involved. Currently, first-time abusers face only a 30-day jail sentence.

Jeremy Borden and Glenn Smith contributed to this report.