COLUMBIA — The Senate on Wednesday passed tougher penalties, a state-enforced ban to strip batterers’ gun rights, and more options for prosecutors in the first major step toward overhauling domestic violence laws in at least a decade.
The months-long effort was marked by impassioned pleas on behalf of domestic violence victims and equally strident protests against the proposed gun ban. Passage, nearly unanimous at 38-3, required a compromise amendment proposed by Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, weakening the gun ban by giving judges discretion on whether to bar low-level domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms
Upstate Republican Sens. Lee Bright, Tom Corbin, and Shane Martin voted against the bill. Previously, they had called the domestic violence measure a gun grab that tramples on Second Amendment rights.
“I’m satisfied that we have a strong bill,” said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, the bill’s primary sponsor. “This will make a meaningful difference for victims in South Carolina as we attempt to address a very serious problem in our state.”
The drive to protect domestic violence victims has been credited to The Post and Courier’s “Till Death Do Us Part” series last year that reveled more than 300 women have been killed by husbands, ex-husbands and live-in boyfriends over the past decade. Guns were used in nearly two-thirds of those deaths.
Since the series ran in August, another 22 people have died in domestic violence in South Carolina, with guns involved in 73 percent of the killings.
The House version of the bill does not include the gun ban.
A House subcommittee was expected to begin debate on the measure Thursday, but the session was cancelled because of a winter storm bearing down on the western part of the state.
Sara Barber, executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said lawmakers have been shown the link between guns and domestic violence deaths, and she hopes the House doesn’t ignore that.
“We have clear, clear statistics that show guns are the weapons of choice,” she said. “This is not about Second Amendment rights. This is about victims’ rights to safety.”
The debate over the gun ban and the Second Amendment turned heated at times in the Senate, with Corbin, of Travelers Rest, calling it “nothing but a gun grab,” and accusing Martin of doing the bidding of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an outspoken gun-control proponent.
Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy, of Lexington, answered Corbin and other opponents with a poignant story of her sister narrowly escaping being killed by her abusive husband before he committed suicide.
Federal law already bars anyone convicted of domestic violence from possessing a gun, but activists have argued that, other than voluntary compliance, that law isn’t generally enforced in South Carolina. A state ban, they say, is needed so that local and state law enforcement agencies can ensure offenders give up their firearms.
The bill passed by the Senate includes a 10-year state-imposed gun ban on those convicted of domestic violence, while giving judges leeway in deciding whether it should be imposed when the level of violence isn’t severe.
Martin disagreed that low-level domestic violence is not serious and not worthy of taking away Second Amendment rights. You ask any victim of (domestic violence) whether it was serious or not or how frightened they were ... I will tell you none of us in this room have a clue what these victims experience in that regard.”
But Campsen said the amendment was necessary to overcome objections and will improve its chances in the House.
“There is no question this helps a gun ban be the end product,” Campsen said afterward.
Laura Hudson, a prominent victim’s advocate, called Campsen’s measure “a defense attorney’s dream” because it gives them bargaining power with a judge or prosecutor.
Senators, she said, do not realize how difficult it is to secure a domestic violence charge in the first place. Often, victims do not want to testify against their loved ones and cases don’t move forward. She said it’s important to take batterers’ guns away for low-level crimes so that a gun isn’t available if abuse escalates.
Shealy, whose story about her sister’s ordeal may have helped solidify support for the gun ban, said she will lobby for its inclusion in the House bill.
“I hope they’re not so blindsided they don’t see it,” she said. “What’s a domestic violence bill if you don’t talk about a gun ban?”