COLUMBIA — Charleston's police chief warned South Carolina lawmakers a proposal to let trained gun owners carry their weapons openly could endanger public safety and make the jobs of law enforcement officers more difficult.
Chief Luther Reynolds was one of dozens of South Carolinians who testified Feb. 10 in opposition to the bill, joining several doctors and self-identified gun owners who said they fear the bill could lead to more violence and anxiety on the streets.
The opponents outnumbered the six supporters who testified in favor of the measure by saying they believe the training aspect will ensure guns are handled responsibly and noting that South Carolina is one of only five states that does not have any form of open carry law on the books.
After the public testimony, the House Judiciary subcommittee voted in favor of the bill with no further discussion, as all three Republicans on the panel approved of it and the lone Democrat disapproved.
The measure is expected to get a full committee hearing within the next two weeks, and House GOP leaders are hoping to send it over to the Senate by early March.
Like several other opponents of the bill, Reynolds said he has owned firearms for most of his life and supports Second Amendment rights. But he said he believes the open carry bill would create "a greater potential for disagreements to turn violent."
Reynolds noted that Charleston and several other cities around the country have seen an increase in protests over the past year and the presence of counterprotesters has occasionally led to physical confrontations.
"Adding the open carrying of handguns increases the potential for loss of life and serious bodily injury," Reynolds said. "It also makes it more difficult for law enforcement when large numbers of individuals are openly carrying handguns."
State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel echoed Reynolds' concerns, telling The Post and Courier he believes it would exacerbate already dangerous situations.
"As if we don't already have enough problems with people with guns, this just presents more of an issue," Keel said.
State Rep. Bobby Cox, the Greenville Republican who is spearheading the effort to pass the bill, said he understands why law enforcement officials are concerned but believes those concerns are outweighed by the interest citizens have in protecting their right to carry firearms.
"I understand where they're coming from, in terms of their mission, but I also, as a lawmaker, have to pass laws that allow people to exercise their constitutional rights," Cox said.
By requiring gun owners to be trained first in order to carry openly, Cox said he believes they would know how to act responsibly. Cox said he also supports providing more funding and training for law enforcement to be able to adapt.
Keel said those assurances did not assuage his concerns.
"We always are happy to get all the training we can get, but I don't know what additional training we could get that would help us deal with people openly carrying guns on our streets every day," Keel said.
Law enforcement opinions tend to carry significant influence in the South Carolina Statehouse. Keel's opposition to legalizing medical marijuana has long been cited as one of the leading impediments by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who support that measure.
Other people who testified during the hearing, which lasted about an hour and a half, included several pediatricians who treat gun injuries and said they believe the bill will lead to more of them.
"This body should be working to implement evidence-based solutions to reduce the incidence of these injuries and deaths," said Annie Andrews, a pediatrician from Charleston. "But unfortunately, the bill that is being considered today will not protect our children and is actually a threat to public safety."
A few in-person speakers were supporters of the bill, including Mark Roote, who said he moved to the state in 2015 from Pennsylvania, where he carried openly without issue.
"The only people who ever had a negative reaction to me open carrying were the police because they didn't like me having to rely on them," Roote said. "There's nothing to fear from open carry."
The measure does not go as far as some of the most ardent gun-rights supporters want. Tommy Dimsdale, the legislative director at Palmetto Gun Rights, said he believes lawmakers should instead pass a "constitutional carry" bill to let everyone carry guns openly regardless of whether they have a permit.