Gun ban for abusers stirs fears

The South Carolina Statehouse. Grace Beahm/Staff

COLUMBIA — A S.C. Senate proposal to reform the state’s domestic violence laws stalled Tuesday after a lengthy back-and-forth about whether judges should be able to take away batterers’ gun rights.

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to take up the measure again on Wednesday afternoon, and the bill’s chief sponsor, Judiciary Chairman Sen. Larry Martin, expects it to move forward to the Senate floor.

He said senators had received hundreds of emails about the bill, S.3, mischaracterizing the effort to stanch the state’s epidemic of domestic violence killings as unfairly infringing on Second Amendment freedoms.

“It is not designed to be the reach and the grab people are accusing us of,” Martin told reporters after the hearing.

Earlier Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee also endorsed an omnibus ethics bill, S.1, that overhauls the rules that govern elected officials’ conduct. The bill had its own lengthy debate, and the committee included an amendment that brought a rebuke from Gov. Nikki Haley on Facebook.

The domestic violence bill includes a provision that would take guns from anyone convicted of a domestic violence charge. Federal law already includes the ban, but South Carolina doesn’t have its own legislation to enforce it or ensure that abusers comply.

Martin’s bill also would take away the gun rights of anyone who has had a protective order in a domestic violence case against them.

Guns were used in 64 percent of all domestic violence killings of women in South Carolina over the last 10 years, a Post and Courier analysis has found as part of a series on the issue called “Till Death Do Us Part,” which examined the issue in detail.

But conservatives on the Judiciary Committee — primarily Sens. Lee Bright and Tom Corbin — found that provision to be overreaching because the accused abuser had not been convicted of any crime.

“You can lose your Second Amendment rights without a jury trial,” said Corbin, R-Travelers Rest.

Christan Rainey, whose family was killed in a domestic violence incident, wrote a letter to Martin saying that the bill needed to go one step further and confiscate guns. Rainey is the founder of Real MAD (Men Against Domestic Violence).

“It does not explain how convicted abusers are supposed to turn in firearms they already own,” Rainey wrote in the letter. “This means that someone who has just been found by a court to abuse a member in their household can simply leave the courthouse and go back home – to their guns, no questions asked.”

Martin said that provision would be a tough political sell and the Senate should stay focused on the rest of the bill.

In an impassioned plea to his colleagues, Martin said he was sure that he would take heat from his rural-area constituents on the gun provisions.

But he said it’s also “wrong” to say that people kill people, not guns. “That is an absolute farce as far as I’m concerned. This is a common-sense way of dealing with this problem,” Martin said.

Aside from the gun provisions, Martin’s bill restructures criminal domestic violence laws into a tiered system of degrees based on the severity of the crime, with escalating penalties that range from 30 days in jail to 10 years in prison. It also requires those charged with domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature to attend a batterer intervention program and allows courts to grant permanent no-contact orders to prevent abusers from harassing victims, among other provisions.

A S.C. House committee is also moving forward with a domestic violence reform package of its own.

The Judiciary Committee also endorsed an ethics reform bill, 19-1. Bright, R-Roebuck, voted against moving the bill forward because he doesn’t believe that outside groups that support candidates in campaigns should have to disclose their donors.

The ethics measure, also sponsored by Martin, would create a new committee to investigate complaints against lawmakers and require elected officials to disclose private sources of income. Separately, the S.C. House on Tuesday moved forward on three other ethics bills.

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, a trial attorney, pushed forward an amendment saying that lawyer-legislators should not have to disclose when they make money suing the state. Gov. Haley objected on Facebook:

“Contact your senator and tell them lawyer legislators do not get a pass on disclosing the truth to the citizens of South Carolina,” she wrote.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.