A bill that would allow concealed firearms in places that serve alcohol cleared a critical hurdle Thursday when the state Senate passed the proposal without a midnight curfew that Senate Democrats insisted on last year.
The Senate voted to amend and then returned to the House a bill that would allow people who have licenses to carry concealed weapons to carry guns into bars or restaurants as long as they do not drink alcohol. Businesses also could decide not to allow firearms on their properties by posting signs. The vote, 34 to 3, was on an amendment to improve some of the bill's language -- changes senators said were minor.
If the House gives the bill final approval and Gov. Nikki Haley signs it into law, it will prove a victory for 2nd Amendment advocates who have tried and failed to pass similar measures in the past, but found momentum last year in the national debate about expanding or limiting gun rights sparked by news of mass shootings around the country.
Supporters have said the bill would allow people licensed to carry concealed weapons to carry while eating dinner in a restaurant, instead of having to lock their gun in a vehicle, where it is less secure, they say.
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But critics say the bill could cause unintended harm.
“Three, four, five o’clock in the morning, you can be in a bar or a club -- anywhere you want to be -- with a handgun,” said Sen. John Scott, D-Richland. “The bill sends a terrible message to the community. It is worse than it was when it left the Senate. I think a lot of innocent people are going to get hurt.”
State law does not distinguish between restaurants that serve alcohol and bars. Drawing that distinction would be difficult, lawmakers said.
The compromise that passed the Senate last year included a curfew that would prohibit concealed weapons in places that serve alcohol from midnight to 5 a.m.
But the House removed that curfew with bi-partisan support and added changes to the state's conceal weapons permit law, sending the bill back to the Senate where it was blocked as the clock ran out on the legislative session.
The Senate has focused much of its time this week, the first week of the legislative session, debating the bill, which passed Thursday with a few minor changes and now goes back to the House.
If the House approves the bill, it will go to Gov. Nikki Haley's desk.