Lawmakers wary of domestic violence gun ban because of political risks

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, has pushed House members to adopt a ban on guns for those convicted of domestic violence.

COLUMBIA — Rep. Chip Limehouse is proud of his high rating by the National Rifle Association for supporting the Second Amendment, and it certainly doesn’t hurt when he’s up for re-election in a state known for guarding gun rights.

Yet the Charleston Republican believes a gun ban keeping convicted batterers from having firearms is needed if the state is going to stem an epidemic of domestic violence.

The gun ban is in the Senate bill that passed by a lopsided 38-3 vote, but is not in the House bill and Limehouse doesn’t think it has much of a chance in the House.

“They’re worried, and rightfully so, that someone will take a quote or a vote, and in a Republican primary in the most conservative state in the union ... (the gun ban vote) could be used in a primary situation against a person and it could have an impact,” Limehouse said. “That’s the big elephant in the room. Some legislators don’t want to be seen as being soft on gun rights. They just don’t want to have that hanging over their head come election time.”

The NRA has remained neutral on the domestic violence bills in South Carolina, as it did on similar bills in other states, including Wisconsin.

But the fear that voting for a gun ban to combat domestic violence could come back to haunt a politician is not out of the question. In Colorado, two state senators were recalled in 2013 for backing a ban on high-capacity magazines and requiring background checks on private gun sales in the wake of the Aurora movie theater shooting.

The NRA and gun-control activists poured money into the recall, which was seen as a warning to lawmakers about the risks of voting for firearms restrictions.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, fought hard for the gun ban in shepherding the bill through the Senate and expects to have to answer for it if he is challenged in the Republican primary.

But, he said, it was the right thing to do, and he expects the House to realize that.

“I just can’t imagine the House won’t at the end of the discussion say, ‘Hey, they’ve abused their family members ... we ought not worry too much about their gun rights,’ ” Martin said.

Demonstrators have rallied at the Statehouse to denounce the gun ban, but local gun rights organizations have mostly stayed out of the debate.

GOP Majority Leader Rep. Bruce Bannister said the House’s approach recognizes that domestic violence primarily deals with mental health and education problems. He also said the House didn’t want to imperil the bill by making domestic violence solely about guns.

“You would alienate a lot more members in the majority party if you said you were going to do a gun control bill,” Bannister said. “We wanted to make sure the debate did not become ‘this is about gun control.’ This is about how to protect spouses who are being abused.”

Still, he said he recognizes that guns are an important part of the debate. He said that House Republicans could amend the Senate’s bill after the House passes its own measure, which would leave some bargaining room and the gun ban on the table.

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, made the gun ban a personal crusade, recounting during Senate hearings how her sister was nearly killed by an abusive husband.

“People in the House aren’t willing to stand up and say, ‘This doesn’t have anything to do with the Second Amendment,’ ” Shealy said. “When you break the law you lose those rights. ... If the only reason they ran was to get re-elected they don’t deserve to be re-elected.”

The ban is considered key by advocates, who say federal law banning felons from having guns is rarely enforced in domestic violence cases.

The effort to strengthen the state’s domestic violence laws was spurred by last year’s Post and Courier series “Till Death Do Us Part,” which revealed that more than 300 women have been killed by a spouse or partner in the last decade, and that guns were used in nearly two-thirds of the deaths.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.