Gun reform bills pit state lawmakers against each other

Dozens of gun reform bills were pre-filed by a handful of lawmakers for the 2016 legislative session. Members on both sides of the argument are vowing to fight for their cause.

COLUMBIA — A battle for gun control and gun rights in South Carolina is brewing among legislators, with both sides of the aisle promising to fight for their cause.

More than a dozen bills filed by Democratic lawmakers in both the House and the Senate would make the gun-buying process more stringent while others would bar military-style weapons from the hands of Palmetto State would-be rifle owners.

Lawmakers who filed the bills said the time to reform the state’s laws is now, after South Carolina was placed in the national spotlight because of the slaying of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church. Plus, they say the mass killings of unarmed civilians in San Bernardino, Calif., and Paris show a pattern: weapons that have the capability to shoot a lot of rounds can kill at lot of people fast. Too fast.

“Now is the time to either put up or shut up,” said Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston. “That’s just the bottom line. Don’t wait until the next tragedy.”

Gilliard said he’s tired of filing legislation after showing up at funerals, participating in hate crime and anti-violence meetings, and coming away from session empty-handed. It takes a tragedy for his colleagues to listen to him, he said.

Yet Gilliard’s argument is already falling on deaf ears. Both Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, and Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, have vowed to block legislation that restricts access to guns. Limehouse said members in both chambers can file bills “until the cows come home,” but they won’t pass the House.

“I’m certainly not going to support these ultra-liberal bills,” Limehouse said. “They’re only going to pass over my bruised and battered body.”

Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, admits it will be an uphill battle to get these bills passed.

The lawmaker pre-filed the majority of gun-control bills in the Senate for the upcoming session, including one that bans military-style guns; another that requires South Carolinians to register their guns; and one that would close the so-called “Charleston loophole,” which made it possible for alleged Emanuel AME shooter Dylann Roof to purchase a gun without having completed the background check.

“Time is of the essence,” Kimpson said. “We should move without delay to pass gun reform.”

Despite dozens of mean-spirited emails Kimpson has received over the issue, he stressed that he respects the Second Amendment. Furthermore, none of his bills infringe upon it because if people pass a background check and register their guns they can have them, he said.

And his bills also have no intention of having law enforcement knock on people’s doors and take their guns away, he added. The bill that would bar future sales of military-style guns would not take them away from current owners; that ownership would be grandfathered in.

But with a ban on new sales, the guns would be phased out of South Carolina’s streets — and from hunting, he said.

“A sportsman who needs assault weapons to hunt isn’t a very good sportsman,” Kimpson said. “There’s no marksmanship involved in gunning down a deer with a military-style weapon.”

The National Rifle Association disagrees. NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said the organization will fight “any and all attempts” to restrict the access of law-abiding citizens to guns.

“In South Carolina’s upcoming legislative session, the NRA will push for legislation that would allow for the automatic recognition of any other state’s valid right-to-carry permit or license,” Mortensen said. “Now, more than ever, Americans increasingly fear for their safety and want to be able to protect themselves and their families.”

Last year, the NRA supported state bill H. 3025, which aims to have South Carolina automatically recognize valid permits issued in other states. That bill drastically changed while on the floor of the House. It was amended — and passed as such — to allow for South Carolinians to carry concealed weapons without a permit, commonly referred to as “constitutional carry.”

The bill was sent to the Senate at the end of April and is waiting to be taken up when the Legislature returns on Jan. 12. Bright has vowed to usher it through the Senate.

Because there’s such a strong push for gun control, Bright added he’s counting on the increased attention of gun-rights advocates to help pass the constitutional carry law.

“If the senators will step up to the plate, we can allow the law-abiding citizens of South Carolina to be able to defend themselves,” Bright said. “It’s not only a constitutional right, but a God-given right.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 843-577-7111.