Twenty years ago, Columbia resident Patten Watson was eating at a restaurant with his wife when three gunmen stormed in and robbed the patrons.
The gunmen did not look like they knew how to handle their weapons, Watson said. But all of his firearms were in his truck at home, ready to go hunting the next day.
“I would have loved to have been able to carry my handgun in that restaurant that night,” Watson told a state Senate panel Wednesday. “Things would have not gotten to the point they did. ... A concealed weapon would have stopped everything.”
Concealed weapons permit holders would be allowed to carry firearms into restaurants and bars if a state Senate bill that advanced Wednesday becomes law.
However, permit holders would not be allowed to drink alcohol while carrying their guns, and bar and restaurant owners could choose to prohibit firearms by posting signs that ban them. They also could ask anyone carrying a firearm to leave the premises.
The bill is one of a dozen that has been introduced in the S.C. Legislature aimed at expanding or protecting the right to bear arms.
The proposals come as lawmakers in other states and the U.S. Congress also grapple with gun restrictions in the wake of deadly mass shootings last year in Colorado, Wisconsin and Connecticut. President Barack Obama, for example, ended his State of the Union address Tuesday by repeatedly saying victims of gun violence deserve a vote on gun control.
‘The good guys’
The Senate panel voted Wednesday for more guns, sending the guns-in-restaurants-and-bars bill to the full Judiciary Committee after hearing testimony from about a dozen people, most of whom supported the proposal.
State Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said the bill gives more freedom to “the good guys,” those who are responsible and do what it takes to get a concealed weapons permit.
Judiciary Committee chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, also supports the proposal, which he said expands the rights of concealed weapons permit holders — more than 3 percent of the state’s residents in 2011.
At the hearing, Paul Peters, a concealed weapons permit instructor, former Columbia Police Department investigator and former Lexington County councilman, said his students ask why the state treats concealed permit holders differently.
“What makes us so different from citizens in other states that we can’t be trusted in this way?” he asked, urging the panel to approve the bill.
“I don’t know that it’s ever appropriate to say this,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, to one permit holder at the hearing, “but you folks are the ones I would prefer to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Guns in restaurants
But Jeff Moore, director of the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association, said the bill opens up all types of businesses that serve alcohol to allowing concealed weapons, including strip clubs and bars.
Drawing a distinction between restaurants and bars, many of which also serve food, is too difficult and would create ambiguity in the law, said Massey, a cosponsor of the bill. That’s why business owners have the right to decide whether to allow firearms, he added.
Some speakers said permit holders also should be allowed to consume some alcohol.
Ralph Baker, who spoke at the hearing, said he “would like to see the bill change so that a person could go in and have a glass of wine with their lasagna....The CWP people are responsible. They’ve proven themselves in that area.”
But a man who identified himself as a former alcoholic said he does not think concealed firearms should be allowed in bars, where some people go to get drunk.
Massey said allowing alcohol consumption would “doom the bill.”
State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said she would forego “having a glass of wine with my lasagna” for the bill to have a chance at succeeding.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said he, and likely others, will oppose the bill when it reaches the full Judiciary Committee.
“I don’t think I need to explain to anybody why drinking alcohol and guns don’t mix,” Hutto said, adding he is not worried about permit holders as much as the people who might take a gun away from its owner.
Hutto also said the debate already has been hashed out. When lawmakers first allowed permit holders to carry weapons in certain places, businesses that serve alcohol and school property were excluded as part of a compromise that allowed the original bill to pass, Hutto said.
Hutto also said he would rather people who find themselves in danger “call 9-1-1. We don’t need individuals trying to straighten out that kind of thing.”
Restaurant owner David McMillan agrees.
“Any time you’ve got alcohol in a situation and firearms, they don’t mix well,” said the chairman of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, and owner of Drunkin’ Jacks restaurant in Murrells Inlet.
Restaurants and bars always could put up signs barring all guns.
But banning firearms, McMillan added, might not be such an easy decision. McMillan said he knows a Georgia restaurant owner who experienced accusations of being “un-American” after posting signs prohibiting weapons.
“Personally, I would not be in favor of (the bill),” McMillan said. “But if you’ve got to make a business decision, and (considering) the backlash that openly opposing (firearms) would cause, I would have to weigh in on the side of caution” and allow them.