House Election South Carolina (copy) (copy)

Republican Ralph Norman speaks to supporters at a campaign party in Rock Hill, Tuesday, June 20, 2017, after winning the South Carolina's 5th Congressional District. AP Photo/Chuck Burton

A South Carolina Republican congressman is not backing down from critics after he pulled out his own personal — and loaded — .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun during a meeting with constituents Friday.

U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, told The Post and Courier he pulled out the weapon and placed it on a table for several minutes in attempt to make a point that guns are only dangerous in the hands of criminals.

"I'm not going to be a Gabby Giffords," Norman said afterward, referring to the former Arizona Democratic congresswoman who was shot outside a Tucson-area grocery store during a constituent gathering in 2011.

Norman was speaking to constituents about gun violence during a public meeting at the Rock Hill Diner. The act drew immediate criticism from Democrats and others.  

Lori Freemon, a volunteer with the South Carolina chapter of a gun control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, argued Norman's actions were "a far cry from what responsible gun ownership looks like."

"I had looked forward to a respectful dialogue with my representative about common-sense gun violence prevention policies," said Freemon, one of three people who were talking to Norman at the time.

"Instead, I felt unsafe when he insisted on showing us his loaded gun and keeping it out on the table for much of our conversation,” she said.

The incident happened at one of the many "coffee with constituents" meetings the freshman lawmaker hosts around South Carolina's 5th Congressional District.

Norman said he pulled out the gun, pointed it away from the meeting attendees and put it on a table for about five minutes while they continued their conversation over breakfast.

The move, Norman said, was intended to prove "guns don't shoot people; people shoot guns."

Norman is a state concealed carry permit holder and said he regularly brings his gun with him when out in public.

If anyone walked into the diner and started shooting, Norman told the attendees, he would be able to protect them because of his gun.

"I don't mind dying, but whoever shoots me better shoot well or I'm shooting back," he told The Post and Courier.

South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson said he plans to request an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division, pointing to a statute that says it is illegal to "present or point at another person a loaded or unloaded firearm."

SLED spokesman Thom Berry said the agency will consider the request once they receive it.

Norman said he does not believe his actions violated the law.

Far from regretting the decision, Norman said he plans to do it more often at constituent meetings moving forward. He contested the notion that anyone was frightened at the sight of the gun, saying nobody reacted strongly or tried to leave the meeting.

"I'm tired of these liberals jumping on the guns themselves as if they are the cause of the problem," Norman said. "Guns are not the problem."

Lori Carter, who also attended the meeting, said Norman put the gun on the table about 20 minutes into the conversation. She said he had just finished telling the group that gun violence is a spiritual, mental or people issue, not a gun issue.

"And then he chose to take the gun out and put it on the table not knowing if any of us had mental health issues," said Carter, a public school teacher from Charlotte, N.C.

"What was to prevent me from leaning across the table to take that gun?" she said. "So to me, it was contradictory."

While Carter acknowledged she did not panic at the time, she described it as an uncomfortable situation.

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"I felt it was highly inappropriate for an elected official, honestly, and it almost felt like an intimidation tactic," Carter said.

Norman's actions also drew the ire of Giffords' husband, retired Navy veteran and NASA astronaut Captain Mark Kelly, who helped Giffords start a gun control group after she was shot.

"Congressman Norman is right – he's no Gabby Giffords," Kelly said in a statement.

"Americans are increasingly faced with a stark choice: leaders like Gabby, who work hard together to find solutions to problems, or extremists like the NRA and Congressman Norman, who rely on intimidation tactics and perpetuating fear," Kelly added.

Residents applying for a CWP must successfully complete a basic or advanced handgun education course offered by a state, county, or municipal law enforcement agency or a nationally recognized organization that promotes gun safety, according to state law.

The education course must be a minimum of eight hours.

Democrats pounced on Norman's actions, suggesting it was a potentially illegal political stunt.

"Ralph is only pulling his gun out of his pants like a prop, which no responsible gun owner would do, because he barely got elected the first time," Robertson said. "This isn't about gun ownership, it's about his inadequate campaign."

Four Democrats have filed to run against Norman in the 2018 race, including his opponent from last year's special election, Archie Parnell.

State Republicans stood behind Norman.

"Hysterical to see liberals freak out over @RalphNorman accurately demonstrating that guns really are inanimate objects," tweeted state GOP Chairman Drew McKissick.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.