COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a bill that would allow residents to carry a gun, openly or concealed, without getting a weapons permit.
The controversial bill passed the chamber 64-46 after more than three hours of debate.
If approved by the Senate and signed into law, anyone who is legally allowed to buy a gun could do so without getting a state permit. The bill would keep the state's concealed weapons permit program in place so South Carolinians could carry their guns in other states.
The proposed law still bans guns from schools and airports, which follows state and federal laws, bill sponsor Rep. Mike Pitts said.
"The bill is a very simple bill," Pitts said. "It means, by definition of the Constitution, it gives you the ability to keep and bear arms without having to be permitted by the country."
The House also approved a bill 80-8 that would allow first responders to carry guns on school property after a one-week training program.
Much of the debate about permitless carry focused on frustration of the bill's opponents about a procedural move last week that limited debate. Several Democrats said the maneuver impeded on their First Amendment rights, while looking to bolster the Second Amendment.
Some opponents of the bill already were upset at what they said was the fast-tracking of the bill through the committees after it was introduced early last month.
Rep. Gary Clary, R-Clemson, said, while he believed the bill was bad, that he was more upset the proposal was not properly vetted and debated.
"When we talk about protecting constitutional rights, when we talk about respecting each others rights, we begin with the First Amendment, and that's the right to free speech," said Clary, a retired judge. "And in this body that is the most important thing that we have to represent for the people that send us here.
"And when we tell the folks that don't have enough votes to pass a bill or to defeat a bill that we're going to cut off the debate, that we're going to cut off their right to speak, then we're telling them that the (35,000) to 38,000 people that they represent, that they are irrelevant."
Other lawmakers said they were upset with the content of the bill, citing the lack of training and education for gun owners. Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, said he worried police would target minorities openly carrying guns.
"If I'm an African-American male on the Battery in downtown Charleston and I'm open-carrying at 1 or 2 in the morning, which I'll legally be able to do, is my very being, the very breath in my body going to give law enforcement probable cause to stop me?" he said.
Rep. Mike Ryhal, R-Carolina Forest, said he didn't think responsible gun owners really are opposed to taking a test or that it was necessary to openly carry a weapon.
"As I walk around and talk about it I keep hearing, 'I don't like this piece of it, but I'm going to vote for it,'" Ryhal said. "'I wish this wasn't in there, but I'm going to vote for it. Maybe when it goes across to the Senate, they'll take care of this and we won't have to deal with it.' Really, folks? Is that why you were sent here?"
The move comes as gun reform activists have sought to strengthen the state's laws, many targeting the errant background check process that allowed now-convicted Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof to buy a pistol two months before killing nine worshipers inside the Charleston church in 2015.
Several bills filed that would either lengthen the waiting period when purchasing a gun or stiffen penalties for those caught carrying guns illegally have gotten no traction this year.