S.C. House OKs domestic abuse bill Compromise that is expected to head to Senate has gun ban, harsher penalties

File/Grace Beahm/Staff Diane Watson and Bridget Musteata with the S.C. Law Enforcement Victim Advocate Association join Attorney General Alan Wilson at a rally for domestic violence reform in the rotunda of the Statehouse.

COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House passed a compromise domestic violence measure Wednesday that would strengthen criminal penalties, ban batterers from possessing guns and require students to be educated in its prevention.

Hailed as the most significant advance on the issue in years, the bill takes aim at the epidemic of domestic violence that has made South Carolina one of the deadliest states in the country for women at the hands of men.

The Post and Courier’s series last year, “Till Death Do Us Part,” revealed that more than 300 women had been killed by husbands, exes and boyfriends during the past decade while the Legislature did little to stop the bloodshed and has been credited with spurring lawmakers into action.

The measure requires another House vote Thursday, then is expected to be taken up by the Senate next week.

“Our state’s alarming domestic violence statistics are indicative of unworkable, complex laws that fail to protect families from senseless abuse,” House Speaker Jay Lucas said in a statement. “Increasing penalties and instituting harsher punishments for offenders are a major step in the right direction, but we also must attempt to transform our culture through education and social policy initiatives,”

Just weeks ago, separate domestic violence bills passed by the House and Senate appeared to be hopelessly stalled. The House measure emphasized education aimed at ending the culture of violence that perpetuates domestic abuse from generation to generation, but it angered senators and victims advocates by weakening the tough penalties and gun ban in the Senate bill.

Lucas appointed Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, who had worked on the issue for months, to hash out a compromise with Senate negotiators.

Erickson said the final bill represented a big step forward, particularly for law enforcement. “The tools in the toolbox for everybody have just been raised by leaps and bounds,” Erickson said.

Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims’ Council, said advocates got “80 percent” of what they wanted.

House and Senate negotiators used the Senate bill as a template, but made significant changes, including some that weakened the Senate’s original, tougher penalties and stricter gun ban.

The domestic violence compromise proposes new penalties that take into account the number of times someone has been convicted and the severity of the crime. It also strips gun rights for three years for lower-level crimes and up to a lifetime for the most severe crimes, although efforts to put a process in place to confiscate guns failed early in the debate.

Federal law bans felons and abusers from possessing guns, but advocates argued a state law was needed to allow local authorities to enforce it.

Under current law, an offender could be sent to prison for five years for abusing his dog but a maximum of just 30 days in jail for beating his wife or girlfriend on a first offense. Under the bill, lower-level offenses could earn abusers 90 days in jail but the measure gives prosecutors more flexibility to push for stricter punishment in more severe cases.

Negotiators kept provisions that allow prosecutors and judges to plead charges down to assault and battery — which would avoid a gun ban. They also allow a judge discretion on whether to strip a batterer of their gun rights for lower-level offenses, which advocates fought.

Tougher penalties are the biggest advance on an issue that has plagued the state for years, Hudson said. Combatting domestic violence has “no silver bullet” but, she said, the measure represents a good start and urged the Senate to pass the bill.

Lawmakers praised Attorney General Alan Wilson, who was a part of the negotiations, for pushing lawmakers to embrace tougher penalties. “We are much closer to giving prosecutors and front-line law enforcement the necessary tools to combat domestic violence,” Wilson said in a statement. “However, that battle will not be won by these tools alone, but also by continued conversations necessary to change the culture.”

Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, pushed for risk assessors to help with setting bond and helping judges decide whether an accused abuser was prone to immediate violence upon release. The assessors would also work with law enforcement to decide if a charge is warranted.

Sara Barber, executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said the provision is troublesome because it would give the victim the authority to decide whether the abuser should be arrested. “That’s a no-win situation for the victim,” she said.

While the House included the assessors in its measure, Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, the author of the Senate version, said he would seek to take it out when the bill is taken up by the Senate. Rutherford’s provision was not included in the House-Senate compromise.

Martin said the idea had not been studied adequately.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.