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'Open carry with training' gun bill passes SC House over police objections

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Bobby Cox - open carry

State Rep. Bobby Cox, R-Greenville, speaks at a news conference in support of his "open carry with training" gun bill as the House debated it on March 17, 2021. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — A bill to let concealed weapons permit-holders carry handguns openly in public passed in the South Carolina House after a six-hour debate March 17, overcoming impassioned objections from Democrats and top law enforcement officials, who warned it could make the state less safe.

In an 82-33 vote largely along party lines, the Republican-dominated House approved the "open carry with training" bill, which supporters touted as a compromise between those who want to restrict gun rights and those who believe the state should let all legal gun owners carry openly regardless of whether they have a permit.

State Rep. Bobby Cox, lead sponsor of the bill, noted that 45 other states already have some type of open carry law on the books and said the bill "will bring us in line with the rest of the country" and "restore our Second Amendment rights."

"We have to do better, and we are doing better," said Cox, R-Greenville. "This is sending a message that these legislators and myself stand with the citizens of South Carolina to protect our constitutional freedoms."

Black Democrats voiced particularly strenuous opposition to the bill, arguing that police would be more likely to scrutinize them if they seek to take advantage of it by carrying guns openly and that White gun owners could use the measure to intimidate them.

"This does not support or help people who look like me," said state Rep. Jermaine Johnson, D-Columbia, describing himself as a 6-foot-7-inch, 285-pound Black man who may draw negative attention if he openly carried a gun. "If I end up in somebody’s body bag or someone's morgue, I want you to think about the way you voted today."

The House narrowly voted down an amendment from House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, that would have made clear police cannot detain anyone solely because they are openly carrying a gun.

The bill's passage also came despite opposition from top law enforcement officials, including Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds, who testified against the bill in subcommittee, and State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel.

"Why would we pass a bill to make law enforcement's job more difficult, to put their lives in more danger?" said state Rep. Seth Rose, D-Columbia, during the debate.

The vote came a day after the House Judiciary committee approved a separate bill, known as "constitutional carry," that would let all legal gun owners carry openly regardless of whether they have received a permit or training. That bill could receive a House floor vote in early April.

State Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Townville, proposed an amendment to replace the open carry with training bill with constitutional carry. But Cox, who authored both bills, said he believes they should be debated separately, and the House voted Hill's amendment down.

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"Constitutional carry in my opinion is far too important to be added on at the last minute, such as with this amendment," Cox said. "It deserves to go through the regular committee process like all bills."

After a perfunctory final vote, the bill will head over to the state Senate. Gun rights bills have historically had a harder time making it out of that chamber, but supporters of the bill are hopeful that an expanded Republican majority after the 2020 elections will make the bill's passage more likely.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he supports open carry with training but is not sure whether the Senate will take it up before the end of the 2021 session in May or what would happen if it did. 

But some of the new Republican lawmakers who ousted Democratic incumbents last year and touted their support for gun rights on the campaign trail said they believe the party should feel emboldened to tackle the issue this year.

"I think there's a renewed energy within the caucus to do something about it, and certainly some of us who flipped seats in no small part based on issues like this are going to be pretty vocal about it," said freshman state Sen. Josh Kimbrell, R-Spartanburg. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Conway, declined to comment on whether either "open carry with training" or "constitutional carry" will receive Senate hearings after they pass the House. But Cox said Rankin had indicated to other lawmakers that he would be more amenable to the bill with a permit requirement.

The bills would remain active for one more year through the 2022 session if they are passed over this year.

Gov. Henry McMaster's spokesman Brian Symmes said the governor would sign either bill into law if they pass the House and Senate, but he did not express a preference for one or the other.

The governor "is happy to see the House of Representatives making progress today and hopes the Senate will follow their leadership and send him a bill to sign into law this session," Symmes said.

State Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, proposed an amendment to let people carry guns openly on the Statehouse grounds, saying lawmakers should not exempt their own workplace if they believe trained gun owners will be responsible.

Some conservatives joined Democrats in supporting that idea, but not enough to garner a majority.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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