COLUMBIA — Three weeks after passing legislation allowing trained gun owners to openly carry their weapons, the S.C. House approved ditching the need for any instruction to legally bear arms — visibly or hidden.
The measure approved 69-47 on April 7 allows any adult who can legally own a gun to publicly tote it without taking a class or passing a background check, making the state's 25-year-old concealed weapon permit law moot.
While advocates dub it the "constitutional carry" bill, pro-gun opponents called that a ruse.
"It's cleverly packaged. It's a ploy. By calling it 'constitutional carry' it implies that if you oppose it, you oppose the Constitution and you're against the Second Amendment," said Rep. Bart Blackwell, R-Aiken.
He should know. In a mudslinging GOP primary challenge last year, mailers and robocalls painted the CWP-holding Air Force veteran as trying to take constituents' guns away. But he's proof such ludicrous accusations can be successfully overcome, he said.
Once voters called his cellphone, printed on the mailers, "Every person I spoke to, without exception, said 'Thank you' for explaining that," he said. "I went from dirt bag to having their vote in a matter of minutes, once folks understood what the issue really was."
He unsuccessfully urged at least delaying a vote until next year, giving time to see what, if anything, the Senate does with a bill the House advanced last month making it unnecessary for CWP holders to conceal their handgun.
"Three weeks ago, training was good. Today, not so much," Blackwell said, arguing that sending the Senate two "diametrically opposed" bills on the same subject may kill the effort entirely.
The "open carry with training" proposal is seen as having a better chance in the Senate, which has repeatedly rejected bills over the past decade that would legalize gun-toting without formalized training. Law enforcement leaders oppose both measures.
Backers of so-called "constitutional carry" contend requiring a class to legally carry is against their constitutional rights.
But both measures would keep in place all existing laws on where people can and can't legally carry. For example, guns would remain off limits in schools, courts and any business that posts a sign prohibiting them.
Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, challenged his colleagues to allow people to carry their guns on all public property, including Statehouse grounds.
"You have your marching orders to do 'constitutional carry,' but if you exclude public property, how is it truly constitutional carry?" he asked sarcastically. "If you’re going to allow people to walk the streets of Columbia, Rock Hill, Lexington, Orangeburg County, why can’t it happen at the state capitol?"
Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, said the reason he allows concealed guns in his restaurants is because he views CWP holders as "the safest group of individuals I can bring in my restaurants."
More than 560,000 South Carolinians hold a CWP, which requires taking an eight-hour class, passing a background check and putting fingerprints into the law enforcement system, according to the State Law Enforcement Division, which handles the permitting.
"We have a program now that works," said Finlay, who voted against the bill. "I have grave concerns we’re getting ready to see a very different profile."
The issue clearly divided the chamber's GOP majority. No Democrat voted for it.
Eleven Republicans voted "no," including House Majority Leader Gary Simrill of Rock Hill; Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope of York, a former solicitor; and former York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant of Lake Wylie.
Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, urged his colleagues to fight back against lobbying groups' nasty, potentially dangerous tactics.
In 2019, then-House Judiciary Chairman Peter McCoy beefed up his security after someone threatened on social media to shoot him. The post came after a lobbying group accused the Charleston Republican of holding up the no-permit-needed bill, calling him the "#1 enemy of restoring our gun rights."
In recent weeks, Palmetto Gun Rights has sent out mailers accusing GOP legislators of stabbing gun owners in the back for voting for open carry with training. The mailers featured a photo of a man with his back to the camera wearing a T-shirt with "insert knife" written across the top and six red, X marks in a triangle pattern.
"No matter how much we disagree on issues, there is a line that's unacceptable to cross," said Bamberg, who voted against the bill. "I've seen some of the mailers. ... You should let them know that’s not OK."
No legislator should have to worry about a child going to the mailbox and coming back asking, "Daddy, why does this say, 'Insert knife here?' That is disgusting."
Palmetto Gun Rights, the state affiliate of the National Association for Gun Rights, did not return a phone message April 7.