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Columbia passes new gun restrictions, hate crimes bill after shooting incidents

South Carolina’s capital city is stepping into the national debate around guns yet again.

On Tuesday, Columbia City Council passed a trio of bills designed to give police more powers to tackle both guns and bias-motivated crimes.

The new ordinances will make it easier for Columbia police to confiscate firearms from gun owners who are deemed to be an “extreme risk;” tighten restrictions on guns near schools; and create a city hate crimes ordinance.

Under one new ordinance, the Columbia municipal court or other courts that may have jurisdiction in Columbia are empowered to issue protection orders if someone is deemed an “extreme risk.”

The orders can be issued at the request of either a police officer or a family member, if the individual is determined to be at risk of suicide, has committed or threatened acts of violence. The person would then have to turn over all firearms to law enforcement or a licensed gun dealer for as long as the order is in effect.

Currently, South Carolina does not have a statewide law allowing courts to issue such protection orders, but 17 other states and the District of Columbia do have some kind of “red flag” law on the books. The proposal is similar to a federal proposal by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, to introduce “red flag” legislation in the Senate.

The ordinance points out that state law does not allow local governments to restrict the ownership of guns, but does allow the council to regulate the use of firearms.

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The city previously passed a ban on the use of bump stocks — devices that can modify a weapon to fire multiple rounds in quick succession and that are criticized as a way to get around the ban on fully automatic weapons. But the city could only regulate the use of bump stocks. Under state law, council members could not ban the devices outright.

Dan Roberts, outreach director for the gun rights group S.C. Carry, worries the ordinance would bypass due process for gun owners who have not been convicted of a crime, and that protection orders will be called for on false pretenses to harass gun owners.

“My 9-year-old knows that you’re innocent until proven guilty, and you can’t be deprived of your rights unless you’re proven guilty,” Roberts said.

The ordinance requires a person named in a protection order request to be notified and have an opportunity to challenge it in a hearing before an order is issued. Also, that person can be assigned a public defender if they qualify.

The city justifies the new ordinance by citing a fall in suicide rates under similar laws in Connecticut and Indiana, and that 51 percent of mass shooters in one study exhibited signs of being a danger to themselves or others prior to a shooting.

The second ordinance passed Tuesday established a gun-free zone near schools in the city limits, prohibiting the carrying of a firearm within 1,000 feet of any public or private school. Exceptions are provided for guns kept on private property or carried by those with a legal license.

The law was passed after a high-profile incident earlier this summer where online threats by a Cardinal Newman School student resulted in the student withdrawing from the private Catholic school and charged with making student threats. Police said the student was shown on a video shooting at a shoe box that he said represented a black man. The school on Alpine Road is outside city limits.

Also, several mass shootings have killed dozens of people in the U.S.

But Roberts says the new law is unnecessary because school zones are already covered by the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. He calls the legislation “grandstanding.”

In 2015, the city passed an ordinance that prohibited the carrying of firearms within 250 feet of the State House grounds, a temporary measure in response to the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds. A court later ruled the ordinance encroached on state law.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said the new ordinances are within the city’s constitutional and statutory authority.

“Our council represents a range of political thought from very progressive to very conservative, so having a unanimous vote is important,” Benjamin said. “Every member but one I believe is a gun owner. But with gun rights comes gun responsibility.”

Richland County is also considering its own ordinance to address gun safety, pending the advice of the county attorney for how far the county may be able to go under state law.

The last ordinance approved Tuesday creates a “hate intimidation” category that enhances penalties for crimes targeting a list of categories. The ordinance targets offenses based on “actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity, expression or national origin.”

Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.
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