Proponents of gun reform and House Democrats were rattled Thursday when they learned a bill that would allow South Carolinians to carry a concealed firearm without a permit advanced without debate or public input.
The proposed law, by Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, was met with no opposition during a hearing by the Judiciary Constitutional Laws Subcommittee.
It calls for what is often referred to as “constitutional carry,” which allows those who can legally own a firearm to carry it – concealed or in the open – without a government-issued permit.
“The right to carry is a constitutional amendment in the Bill of Rights,” Pitts said. “It is a constitutionally protected right, and that’s why I don’t think the government should (issue a) permit” for the carrying of a gun.
Pitts introduced a similar bill in 2016. But this year’s bill also would allow for “open carry,” which means a person can carry a firearm without having to conceal it.
The proposal does not change where firearm owners can carry their weapons. They would still be barred from carrying into schools and other already prohibited locations. And private businesses could still bar firearms from their establishments.
Carrying of a firearm while committing a crime also would remain prohibited.
The bill also would keep the state’s concealed weapons permitting system in place for those who would prefer that or need to have a permit when traveling out of state with a firearm, Pitts said.
No one from the public signed up to speak during Thursday’s hearing, which lasted about five minutes. The bill, which was filed Tuesday, passed with the support of the three Republicans serving on the panel. Reps. James Smith, D-Richland, and Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, were absent.
Smith said he was out of town, while Powers Norrell said she was out of the country when both were reached by phone. Smith said if either had been present, they would have attempted to delay a vote, giving more time for word to spread to the public.
“The meeting was set Wednesday for Thursday morning,” Smith said. “It’s clearly being fast-tracked, which has undermined the ability for adequate public input because nobody had the time to react.”
The panel’s advancement of the bill without testimony from constituents or without all of the committee members present frustrated Sylvie Dessau, a local volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an organization that calls for “common-sense legislation” to address gun violence.
“Simply put, this is not how our democracy works,” Dessau said. “We urge House leadership to reject this stunt to advance legislation pushed by gun lobby extremists. South Carolinians deserve to have a say in legislation that may impact our lives for years to come.”
But Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester – who is also the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that will debate the proposal next – stressed the bill’s timing was related to the Legislature’s shorter session this year.
In 2016, the Legislature voted to shorten the session to five months. The move has bumped up dates, like the crossover deadline, which is the time by which bills have to pass one of the chambers to stand a chance at becoming law by the session’s end. That date is now April 6.
“We have a short session,” Delleney said. “We have the budget next week. We were just trying to beat crossover.”
Delleney said he thinks the bill will be well-received by members of the House. The House has previously passed legislation that allows for constitutional carry. But the bills have died in the Senate, with its rules that allow deliberation and easier blocking of legislation.
Pitts’ bill could still face a similar fate, even if it passes the House.
But Powers Norrell said she was disappointed the measure was even introduced, adding she thought efforts to expand access to firearms this year would end with the advancement of a bill that calls for South Carolina to recognize the concealed weapons permits of all states in the country.
“It’s disappointing,” she said. “I suspected that constitutional carry would come, but I didn’t think it’d come so soon.”