COLUMBIA — Some S.C. Highway Patrol troopers, fearful of being out-gunned, have been buying and bringing their own high-powered rifles on duty to replace their less lethal state-issued shotguns.
The news comes as the state Department of Public Safety is seeking $500,000 in next year's state budget to equip all troopers with AR-15 rifles, which officials contend could save lives if there's a mass shooting in South Carolina.
Col. Chris Williamson, commander of the S.C. Highway Patrol, recently confirmed that some front-line troopers wanted the more effective rifles so badly for potential confrontations that about 50 have bought their own in the past couple of years.
A policy change allowed troopers to carry personal rifles on the job that meet specifications, provided they undergo the agency's eight-hour course on the weapon.
An AR-15 rifle costs about $1,000.
The effectiveness is definitive. Troopers' shotguns — carried either in the front of their patrol vehicle or the trunk — hold six rounds, and each officer carries four additional shells, allowing a maximum of 10 shots.
But rifle magazines hold 30 bullets, and each trooper gets three magazines, for 90 possible shots.
"They can definitely go in there and get the job done," Williamson said.
The agency has already provided rifles to the 150 troopers in its emergency response teams. The budget request would spread them out across the force.
Williamson argues rifles would provide more accuracy at longer distances than shotguns and can return more fire. Also, a shotgun's spreading pellets could inadvertently strike innocent victims, he said.
Lawmakers seem favorable to the request, which some say would better prepare the state to respond to an event similar to the mass shootings seen in Orlando, Las Vegas and recently at a church in rural Texas.
When officers show up with shotguns "the bad guys can keep the good guys at bay because they can't get to them," said Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairman of the House budget panel that writes law enforcement agencies' budgets.
"The effective range of a rifle in the hands of a competent shooter is 400 yards," compared with about 50 yards with a shotgun, said Pitts, a retired law enforcement officer who supports the purchase.
"The bottom line is, I don’t want my guys in uniform to be outgunned," he said.
The allocation would buy 535 Sig Sauer M400 rifles to outfit the remaining troopers who must also take the initial course and a four-hour re-qualification class yearly.
The rifle provides an advantage to troopers who never know what they'll face on their shift, said Sgt. Barney Pope, a firearms instructor and member of the agency's advanced response team.
"It's a matter of having the right tool for the job," he said. "If a bad guy is armed with a rifle, you'd prefer to have a rifle."
Fortunately, none of the troopers already armed with a rifle have needed to shoot it, Williamson said.
When a 14-year-old boy opened fire outside Townville Elementary in September 2016, fatally shooting a 6-year-old boy and injuring two others, one of the first officers to arrive was a trooper who happened to be nearby and carried his personal rifle to help secure the school, Williamson said.
But it was a volunteer firefighter who actually tackled the teen and kept him down until officers arrested him.
While the rifle wasn't necessary then, the agency's budget proposal is about future unknown scenarios, Williamson said.
"The worst thing that can happen in South Carolina is to have an active shooter incident and have troopers get to the scene in a timely manner but not have the proper weapons to end the threat," he said.
The rifle request is part of the additional $7.4 million the Department of Public Safety is seeking from the state for the fiscal year starting July 1. Other requests include almost $3 million for troopers' radios, $2 million for overtime and $540,000 to replace old laptops.
House and Senate budget-writing panels will resume their work when legislators return in January.