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SLED chief: SC needs a law allowing officers to arrest more felons with guns

Cropped version-SLED crime press conference (copy) (copy)

State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel speaks at a press conference June 3, 2021, about a worrisome increase in violent crime in South Carolina. As a way to combat it, Keel supports legislation expanding state and local officers' ability to arrest people for illegally possessing a gun. File/Adam Benson/Staff

COLUMBIA — To combat a startling rise in violent crime, South Carolina officers need the ability to arrest more convicted felons illegally carrying a gun, according to the state's top law enforcement officer. 

State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said he will push for legislation next year to align state law to what's already illegal through federal law. The problem is that state and local law enforcement officers can't make arrests on federal charges, and they can't rely on federal agents to always be available to make the case for them, he said.

"As chief of SLED, my top priority is trying to keep the citizens of this state safe," Keel told Gov. Henry McMaster in his last Cabinet meeting , citing statistics showing a 51 percent increase in killings statewide over the last five years.

In the last year alone, homicides increased 25 percent, from 457 to 571, according to preliminary data for 2020.

"It's important that our legislative priorities reflect this and we take immediate legislative steps to stem the violence," Keel said. 

That includes creating a true felon-in-possession law, he said.

There's been a state law since 2010 outlawing gun possession by felons, but it applies only to people convicted of certain violent felonies.

The list does not include, for example, strong arm robbery, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook noted in a letter to legislators last summer suggesting some "commonsense solutions" to help officers stem gun violence. 

And in many cases, people arrested for a charge that is on the list, such as drug trafficking, plead guilty to a lesser charge that doesn't meet the state's definition of a violent felony.

"Drugs and guns do not mix," Holbrook wrote, also asking legislators to prohibit gun possession by drug addicts, as federal law does.

For felons who can be charged with possession under existing state law, the maximum punishment is a $2,000 fine and/or up to five years in prison.

Bipartisan proposals introduced in January would expand who can be charged with gun possession under state law to anyone convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison. Both would also create tiered sentencing guidelines, as advocated by law enforcement.

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"In South Carolina, a person's potential sentence for his first conviction of unlawful possession of a handgun is exactly the same as the fifth conviction of that crime," Holbrook wrote. "The state should enact graduated or progressive sentencing … meaning, after each arrest the penalty is more severe." 

A bill filed by Rep. Seth Rose, D-Columbia, increases punishment from a maximum of three years on first offense to up to 15 on the third and beyond. Penalties would rise substantially under the bill filed by GOP Rep. Bruce Bryant, previously sheriff of York County for 20 years. His bill would set the maximum at 10 years on first offense and 30 years on third, with a mandatory minimum of 15. 

Otherwise, their bills are essentially the same. 

"This is such common sense to match federal law to state law. It's not taking anyone's guns," said Rose, a former prosecutor-turned-defense attorney. "Federal law trumps state law, so if it's federal law, it's already the law. We just need to match it to give law enforcement the tools they need to charge people with the crime they committed."  

But neither bill even got a hearing this year, despite both being co-sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope, former solicitor for York and Union counties. Beyond Keel and Holbrook, other law enforcement groups backing the concept include the state Sheriffs' Association, with Director Jarrod Bruder noting the details will have to be worked out.

The details are what brought the opposition of the really big guns: the National Rifle Association.

And that's created an uphill battle for what should be a logical, bipartisan effort, Rose said. 

"While we support the premise, this bill interacts with existing state code in a way that could result in thousands of South Carolinians with nonviolent misdemeanor convictions immediately losing their 2nd Amendment rights," NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide said. 

Bryant, R-Lake Wylie, said the goal of getting firearms out of the hands of convicted felons should be simple, though it's fallen on "deaf ears in the General Assembly" for a long time. 

"If you commit a felony, you should not be allowed to have a firearm," said Bryant, who as sheriff also sat on the state Law Enforcement Training Council, which Keel leads. 

"The gun advocates will probably have some opposition, but certainly, I think this helps us deal with the violent crime rise," he said. "We know felons are not supposed to have them in their possession. This law will allow us to take action." 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

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