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After another mass shooting, S.C. lawmakers wrestle over gun rights

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A crowd gathered to rally against gun violence at Marion Square in downtown Charleston on Monday, following last week's deadly school shooting in Florida. Matthew Fortner/Staff

COLUMBIA — The day after 17 students and educators were killed at a Parkland, Fla., high school, state Sen. Greg Gregory took to the Statehouse floor and said "thoughts and prayers" offered by lawmakers were not enough to prevent mass shootings.

"God is not listening," the Lancaster Republican said Thursday about legislators of faith failing to stop sales of assault-style rifles like the AR-15 used in the latest tragedy and other mass shootings.

“We talk about it, but we really don’t come up with any solutions," he said. "It’s time, I think, for us to do that.”

Gregory, who admitted his views would not be popular in a state where gun rights are considered a birthright, plans to propose halting sales of firearms or gun magazines with capacities greater than 10 bullets. 

The Florida school shooting has other S.C. lawmakers renewing pushes for gun control measures. A Senate panel Wednesday will hold hearings on two bills, one that would require speedier updates to South Carolina's background database and another that would make it a crime for anyone to threaten to cause gun violence at schools.

Both bills were introduced prior to the Parkland shooting.

Still, other Palmetto State legislators want to strengthen the rights of gun owners so they can protect themselves in mass shootings. Lawmakers often tout their high graces from the influential National Rifle Association in political campaigns.

The House and Senate have bills that would allow for South Carolinians to carry guns without permits. Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, has proposed allowing concealed weapons permit holders to carry guns on college campuses.

While his bill doesn't address K-12 schools, Pitts said a responsible gun owner could have protected students during the Parkland shooting.

"There was a coach there that shielded kids with his body," Pitts said. "But if that coach had been a (concealed weapons permit) holder and been allowed, he could have at least done more than turn his back and shield kids. He would have been able to return fire."

The gun debate inside the Statehouse now is similar to the one that followed the 2015 Charleston AME Church massacre in Charleston. And again, gun-control bills may not see a floor vote by the end of the legislative session in May, but Gregory said the proposals ought to be heard now.

“Whether we can pass it or not, we need to be on offense on common-sense gun regulation,” he said.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said Tuesday he plans to propose to ban buyers under 20 years old from getting AR-15 rifles. 

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"I need the students of South Carolina to know that we are paying attention and that 'never again' actually means something in South Carolina," Rutherford said.

Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston, said he filed a bill Tuesday that would mandate monthly active shooter drills at all South Carolina K-12 public schools.

“In the event that something does happen, we would know how to handle ourselves," Pendarvis said. "We have fire drills. We may have bomb drills ... we’ll have active shooter drills.”

On Wednesday, a Senate judiciary panel will consider a bill from Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, targeting individuals who threaten to cause gun violence at K-12 schools or college campuses. Before last week’s Florida shooting, federal officials failed to act on a tip that the gunman had a “desire to kill people” and there was the “potential of him conducting a school shooting,” the FBI said.

South Carolina has seen threats of school violence even after the Parkland shooting last Wednesday. In Lexington County on Monday, a photo circulated of a message written on a bathroom wall at Chapin High School that read, “Shooting up the school tomorrow!” The Lexington County Sheriff’s Department said it added patrols to the area Tuesday.

Deputies in Sumter County dealt with a similar issue Monday when a 13-year-old at Chestnut Oaks Middle School wrote on a bathroom floor that she would “shoot the school down.” Deputies said they found no credibility to the threat.

Senn said her bill would allow local authorities to arrest and investigate suspects for making such threats.

“Things can always slip through, but if our officers see it and know it, they have a tool,” Senn said.

Another bill scheduled for a Wednesday hearing, sponsored by Gregory with Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, would require county clerks of courts, judges and police to report their feeds of local criminal case information to the state every 10 days, rather than the 30 days required under the law now.

Federal law gives the FBI three business days to tell a gun dealer if someone can't legally buy a firearm. Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, who chaired in 2016 a special panel that didn’t lead to any new gun laws, has a bill that would extend that period to 28 days.

Gregory and Kimpson's bill would extend the waiting period to five days, but that provision would sunset after two years.

A clerical error, now called the “Charleston loophole,” allowed Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof to purchase a .45-caliber Glock handgun before his background check was completed. He killed nine during a bible study, including a state senator, in the racially charged murders.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.

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