COLUMBIA — Trained South Carolina gun owners will likely soon be able to carry pistols openly in public after the state Senate fast-tracked, prioritized and ultimately approved a bill to expand the rights of concealed weapons permit-holders.
After multiple days of debate, the Senate voted 28-16 late in the evening May 6 in favor of the bill. They rejected attempts by some conservative Republicans to transform it into a more expansive bill, known by supporters as "constitutional carry," to let all legal gun owners carry openly without a permit.
As lawmakers spent more than a dozen hours quarreling over the proposal on the floor, Democratic opponents of the bill conjured a dystopian future of shootouts in the streets, protests becoming increasingly violent and drunken fights turning fatal.
"It's just a recipe for disaster that can easily be avoided," said state Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Manning. "I'm just asking that we think very carefully about what we're doing to our beautiful state by turning into a scene from the wild, wild west."
Republican supporters responded by noting that it's already legal to carry a long gun openly in South Carolina and yet few residents seem to take advantage of it.
"I don't think open carry with a pistol will be an issue, either," said state Sen. Tom Corbin, R-Travelers Rest.
Despite its conservative political reputation, South Carolina is currently one of only five states without some form of open carry law on the books.
Only one senator broke party lines on the vote: state Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, voted against the bill. Otherwise all Republicans supported it and all Democrats opposed.
Lawmakers did approve several relatively minor amendments to the bill, including shortening the time court clerks need to report incidents that could block people from getting a gun, like criminal indictments and extending the effective date of the bill to 90 days after the governor signs it.
They also adopted amendments to eliminate a $50 fee applicants have to pay for concealed weapons permit training, to let judges with permits carry anywhere in the state and to set a minimum number of 25 rounds people would have to fire during training.
The House will now need to decide whether to agree to those changes that the Senate made to the bill. If they do, it will head to the desk of Gov. Henry McMaster, who has long said he would sign the measure into law.
If they do not, they will need to meet with senators to reconcile their differences.
Among other provisions, the bill would add extra training requirements for concealed weapons permits, including on how to properly holster guns and de-escalation techniques for hostile situations.
It would also maintain many of the limitations in place under state law for locations where guns are allowed, meaning they could not be taken into businesses or private residences if the owners do not want them. They would also be banned from government buildings, including the Statehouse.
About three hours of the debate May 5 was consumed by internal GOP disagreements over whether to expand the bill to let all legal gun owners without a permit carry handguns openly.
State Sen. Shane Martin, R-Pauline, argued that gun owners should not have to go through the government's permitting process in order to get "the freedom to exercise our God-given rights."
"I want everyone to be able to exercise his or her constitutional rights, but I don't want our government to have to tell us how to do that," Martin said.
But other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, argued that having some background check and training requirements is more reasonable and within the constraints of how conservative judges, like the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, have interpreted the Constitution.
"It's important to be able to demonstrate at least a minimal proficiency in handling weapons," said Massey, R-Edgefield.
The permitless carry proposal was ultimately voted down 25-21. But Martin said afterwards that he will continue advocating for the idea in the future and is hopeful some senators will change their minds if supporters of the measure maintain pressure on them.
The bill reached the floor after Republican lawmakers decided to bypass the full committee process, voting to bring the bill up for a debate by the full chamber to ensure it would not run out of time to be considered before the end of the 2021 legislative session on May 13.
During subcommittee hearings, several doctors and police officers spoke against the bill. Opponents of the measure include State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who told House lawmakers when the bill first came under consideration that he fears it would make the state less safe.
"The medical community is against this bill, law enforcement is against the bill, the business community is against the bill and, overwhelmingly, the people of South Carolina are against the bill," said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston. "Who do we represent?"
Martin said he thinks there are many responsible gun owners who would have testified in support of the bill but could not miss work to do so.