Abuse bill ‘watered down,’ say advocates

A Statehouse domestic violence rally calling for reform, which was taken up by the House on Tuesday.

COLUMBIA — Victims advocates dismissed the domestic violence bill passed by the House on Tuesday as “watered down,” saying it protected gun rights, not a woman’s right to live.

“This is not a victim-friendly piece of legislation,” said Laura Hudson, executive director of the South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council. “It was watered down in every way. I’m very disappointed.”

Advocates’ mainly objected to the House bill giving judges and prosecutors leeway in pleading out domestic violence cases as assault and battery, instead, which would not necessarily bar offenders from possessing guns.

By approving its own bill instead of adopting or amending the Senate’s, the House also may have ended any chance of strengthening the state’s penalties for domestic violence or taking guns away from convicted batterers this year.

“It’s not a great day, because the Senate just does not have the ability to take that bill up before we adjourn,” said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens. “The victims of South Carolina will not benefit from anything we’ve done this session.”

Despite the criticism, House GOP leaders trumpeted their bill as a major accomplishment that stiffens penalties and seeks to address the culture of violence that perpetuates domestic violence by requiring education in schools. The bill, which passed 101-9, must be voted on again before being sent to the Senate.

“Far too many South Carolinians have tragically lost their lives as a result of domestic violence,” House Speaker Jay Lucas said in a statement. “The ideas we have put forth deserve considerable discussion and I am committed to working with Senate leadership and the attorney general to ensure Governor (Nikki) Haley receives a bill on her desk for signature sooner rather than later.”

The Senate and House had deadlocked over a proposed gun ban in the Senate bill that would bar domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms for 10 years. Under federal law, those convicted of domestic violence are barred from having guns, but advocates argued a state law was needed to enforce it in domestic violence cases.

The effort grew out of last year’s Post and Courier series “Till death do us part,” which revealed that more than 300 women had been killed in the past decade by husbands, exes and boyfriends while the Legislature failed to act. More than two-thirds were killed with guns.

Lawmakers in the House focused instead on education and, until a compromise emerged Tuesday, ignored the gun ban. The compromise proposed by House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, would have barred high-level offenders from possessing guns for 10 years, the same as the Senate’s measure. But it would have restored low-level offenders’ gun rights after three years, placating defenders of the Second Amendment.

How that would be reconciled with the federal lifetime ban for felons was unclear, and Hudson said she was skeptical that federal authorities would honor the state’s request to remove people from the federal gun registry. The Department of Justice could not be reached late Tuesday.

Advocates also criticized the House bill for removing state oversight of treatment programs for batterers, placing them instead under the state’s 16 prosecutors.

The bill also moves all domestic violence cases to circuit courts, instead of having magistrates deal with low-level offenders. Advocates said that would slow down court proceedings and make convictions less likely, given that victims often become less willing to testify as the case drags on.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, a social worker, blasted her colleagues for weakening the bill. The House rejected several amendments from Cobb-Hunter and others that would have provided counseling for batterers, victims and their children, as well as kept batterers’ programs under the Department of Social Services.

“Our priority here was to make sure someone could hold onto a gun,” Cobb-Hunter said. “Don’t leave out of here thinking you did anything meaningful. You haven’t done what we could have done.”

Rutherford, who offered the compromise gun ban, also wanted counselors to be at the scene of domestic violence incidents. When the House rejected that because of the cost, Rutherford said he decided to vote against the bill.

“Everything costs money, but so do dead people and so does putting people in jail,” Rutherford said. Earlier during debate, he told lawmakers, “I say we can’t afford dead women.”

Cynthia Roldan contributed to this report. Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.