House domestic abuse bill advances

Diane Watson and Bridget Musteata, of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Victim Advocate Association, join Attorney General Alan Wilson earlier this month at a rally for domestic violence reform in the rotunda of the South Carolina Statehouse.

COLUMBIA — Efforts to remove South Carolina from the list of the nation’s deadliest states for women moved into high gear Thursday as the state House of Representatives joined the state Senate with measures to strengthen domestic abuse laws, including a controversial gun ban on abusers.

The unanimously endorsed proposal by a House special committee on domestic violence mirrors a bill in the Senate, and also includes stricter criminal penalties and anti-abuse education for grade-school students.

The measure is expected to be formally introduced as legislation next week.

Also Thursday, Gov. Nikki Haley, who said nothing about South Carolina’s domestic violence epidemic in her State of the State speech the day before, announced she would be formally setting up a task force before the end of the month to tackle the problem.

Chaney Adams, the governor’s spokeswoman, did not directly respond to a question about why Haley passed over domestic violence in her Wednesday night address, among her most important and widely watched speeches of the year. The omission disappointed many involved in the fight for reform, including Becky Callaham, director of Safe Harbor, which runs women’s shelters in the Upstate.

“I have a headache from banging my head against the wall last night” after listening to the speech, Callaham said.

But Adams said in an email: “Addressing the criminal domestic violence problem in South Carolina is one of the governor’s top priorities. She knows that supporting women and families in need will take more than just passing legislation, rather we must ensure that every stakeholder assisting a victim in South Carolina has a seat at the table — that’s why before the end of the month she will roll out her domestic violence task force.”

The House Special Committee on Domestic Abuse has met for months to hash out new policy to combat the scourge of domestic violence in South Carolina, a state with one of the highest rates of women killed by husbands, boyfriends and former lovers.

The committee was empaneled two days after The Post and Courier ran an investigative series called “Till Death Do Us Part” that reveals that 300 women have been killed over the past decade.

Rep. Shannon Erickson, the Beaufort Republican who chairs the committee, said she plans to introduce legislation Tuesday that reforms the state’s bail, social policy and criminal laws related to domestic violence.

“I didn’t expect to have a bill that would have unanimous approval,” Erickson said. “What we’ve got is a comprehensive product.”

House Speaker Jay Lucas applauded the committee’s work, saying, “our government has a responsibility to dramatically change our laws so that we can offer our citizens the best possible protection from those who attempt to inflict senseless harm.”

On Thursday, the committee seesawed between taking a stronger stance on a gun ban for those convicted of domestic violence and questioning whether that would have unintended consequences. Lawmakers opted to leave those decisions for another day.

Similar to the companion Senate measure, the House’s domestic violence bill would take gun rights away from convicted abusers for 10 years. Federal law already mandates a lifetime ban, but South Carolina doesn’t have its own legislation to enforce it or ensure that abusers comply.

The House bill has one key difference from the Senate bill: only those convicted of domestic violence felonies would lose their gun rights.

On Wednesday, legislators on the Senate Judiciary Committee sought a similar amendment to exclude misdemeanor offenders. Those efforts failed.

House members said it’s risky to pass a measure that contradicts federal law. Judges would, in essence, be telling those convicted of domestic violence that their gun rights would be restored in 10 years after a conviction, even though they could be charged for doing so under federal law.

“I would hate to see somebody ... go to jail for something we said they could do,” said Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, a former state police agent.

Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, was similarly troubled. “I practice law for a living,” he said. “I took an oath to uphold the state Constitution and the United States Constitution.”

Erickson said she knows the bill now has two provisions that contradict federal law — a 10-year versus a lifetime ban on guns for domestic violence offenders and a gun ban that doesn’t apply to misdemeanors. Both the House and Senate modeled their legislation on a law that passed in Louisiana, and she expects those issues to be hammered out as the bill goes through the committee process.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, has said the 10-year gun ban is the most stringent measure that could survive politically among far-right senators. “I know you guys look at us like the gun whackos,” said Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, during Wednesday’s Judiciary meeting. “But once you take someone’s Second Amendment rights, it’s a slippery slope.”

Erickson said she is proud that the House bill seeks to deal with domestic violence comprehensively. The bill also includes provisions that seek to improve batterers’ programs, allow judges more discretion in setting bail and gives prosecutors more leeway in how to try cases.

Erickson, however, was among those who were disappointed the governor passed on a chance to highlight the need for domestic violence reform in her State of the State speech.

“I was really sad,” she said. “I’m an educator. I’m thrilled she wants to talk about teachers. But I was deeply saddened. That something that is as big to the citizens of our state was not mentioned anywhere.”

Adams said Haley has previously taken action to “make it clear that addressing the domestic violence issue in South Carolina is a priority for the governor.” She said those actions include a recent roundtable discussion with a leading national expert on domestic violence, her earlier statement that she would create the task force and her inaugural speech earlier this month.

Doug Pardue and Glenn Smith contributed to this article.