Lawmakers fear domestic violence reform will falter without compromise soon

A Silent Witness Ceremony held at the Statehouse in 2014 is a yearly ceremony to serve as a reminder for how many die due to domestic violence every year. The Legislature’s domestic violence reform effort is aimed at beginning to address the issue.

COLUMBIA — Lawmakers fear that if House and Senate leaders don’t soon agree on a blueprint for strengthening domestic violence laws, the Legislature will lose momentum and nothing will be passed this year.

The Senate and House have each passed domestic violence measures that strengthen criminal penalties for abusers and take away batterers’ guns, although victim advocates say the House bill is riddled with problems and prefer the Senate’s measure.

While House members don’t necessarily agree, some who have worked on the issue for months want to ensure that leaders at least move the bills toward a conference committee to hash out differences — something that isn’t guaranteed at this point.

With less than a month before the Legislature adjourns for the year, Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, has said the Senate won’t have enough time to pass the House measure, so he has urged House members to use the Senate bill as a basis for discussions on a compromise.

Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, agrees with Martin that time is of the essence.

“You don’t want the momentum to die,” McCoy said. “We have to push for a hearing on (the Senate bill) now. People will play ball. People have invested their sweat, their blood and their energy on this issue.”

The urgency to address domestic violence this session has been driven by last year’s Post and Courier series “Till Death Do Us Part,” which exposed how deadly South Carolina is for women in relationships with abusive men. More than 300 women were killed in the past decade by husbands, exes and boyfriends.

More than two-thirds were killed with guns, leading to calls for a state law barring convicted batterers from possessing guns. While federal law already prohibits felons from having guns, victim advocates argued it was rarely, if ever, enforced by federal authorities, and the state needed to go further and take firearms away from even low-level domestic violence offenders.

The Senate adopted a gun ban, but advocates slammed the bill passed by the House last week, saying it watered down the penalties by giving prosecutors and judges the leeway to plead out domestic violence charges as assault and battery. In some of those cases, then, the gun ban would not be applicable because there would be no domestic violence conviction, critics said.

The House can still make whatever changes it wants to the Senate bill, and House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister said last week the House would give the Senate’s domestic violence bill a hearing. If the House passes the Senate’s measure even with changes, it could pave the way for a conference committee to forge a compromise.

Martin said he planned to meet with House Speaker Jay Lucas this week to discuss how to move ahead. If the House passes the Senate bill, Martin said he believes there is a good chance that the measure could pass this year.

Attorney General Alan Wilson, who has been a proponent of strengthening protections for abuse victims, is also urging leaders to pass a bill this year. He said last week that both bills contain the stiffer penalties he has been pushing for.

Previously, a domestic violence charge was based on how many times a batterer had been convicted, not on the severity of the crime. Both bills change that, Wilson said, while declining to comment on the specifics of either measure.

“I want people to have the sense of urgency (on domestic violence) they’ve given to other issues,” Wilson said. “We’ve been debating this for a long time. I think its time for action.”

Wilson said he knows no bill would be perfect and that the emphasis on penalties was a start in addressing the complex issue. “The things we can control are penalties and the tools that cops and prosecutors use,” he said. “I don’t believe for a second that having the right penalties and the right tools will lessen South Carolina’s standing on the bad list. But you’ve got to start somewhere.”

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.