Columbia gun rule would probably be struck down in court, SC attorney general says

A rule the city of Columbia put in place to combat homemade guns likely violates state law and would not stand up in court, South Carolina’s attorney general said in an opinion this week.

The office of Attorney General Alan Wilson issued a formal opinion Thursday that Columbia’s ban on “ghost guns” violates state law that prohibits local governments from passing most regulations of guns.

“Ghost guns” are guns manufactured at home without serial numbers, which makes it much harder for law enforcement to track bullets fired by those weapons.

On July 16, the city approved an ordinance that declared any location that manufactured a ghost gun to be a public nuisance. But an Upstate lawmaker, state Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson, wrote to the attorney general’s office asking whether the ordinance violated state law, which blocks local governments from regulating the ownership of firearms or their components beyond what state law already allows.

“On its face, the Ordinance imposes a regulatory scheme, with potential civil and criminal consequences, targeting the ‘storage, warehousing, transfer, distribution or sale’ of a class of firearms,” says the opinion, signed by Assistant Attorney General David Jones. “We note that... possession and ownership of a firearm necessarily involves ‘storage’ of that firearm in some structure at some time.

“Furthermore, the State statue expressly prohibits local ordinances that attempt to regulate ‘components of firearms,’ which necessarily are an indispensable part of the ‘manufacture [and] assembly’ described in the Ordinance,” it continues.

“It is the opinion of this Office that a court most likely would conclude that such an ordinance constitutes regulation of possession and carrying of a firearm by a political subdivision, and therefore is prohibited.”

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The opinion doesn’t invalidate the law, which the attorney general’s office notes is presumed to be constitutional until it is struck down by a court.

“I stand by it,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said of the law. “I took an oath as an elected official in this city to protect the life, health and dignity of everyone in the city.”

The city maintains the ordinance is allowed because it doesn’t regulate ghost guns themselves, but the locations where those guns are “manufactured, assembled, stored, warehoused, transferred, distributed, or sold,” the city’s response to the attorney general’s office said.

Benjamin said he would prefer if Hill and other lawmakers instead worked toward passing a statewide ban on privately manufactured firearms, noting the act of removing a serial number from a gun is already illegal under state law.

“It makes sense logically that guns made without serial numbers are also against the public interest,” Benjamin said. “I think policy needs to keep up with the speed of technology.”

The opinion was issued the same week Columbia City Council gave final approval to other laws tightening gun restrictions in the state’s capital city. Richland County is also looking at a new gun safety ordinance, something that has also drawn the opposition of gun rights activists.

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.