Crime & Courts

Gun legislation crawls in SC Legislature

Sens. Marlon Kimpson, left, and Gerald Malloy, right, said the national climate on gun-related legislation has changed since the presidential election.
Sens. Marlon Kimpson, left, and Gerald Malloy, right, said the national climate on gun-related legislation has changed since the presidential election. File photograph

Legislation seeking to expand or reform South Carolina’s gun laws has slowed to a crawl during the first half of the Legislative session in the face of a new presidential administration.

The S.C. House of Representatives is expected to address this week a bill calling for the recognition of the concealed weapons permits of all states. Beyond that, neither chamber has worked on legislation that seeks reform or expanded access to firearms.

Legislators point at different reasons why gun legislation seems to have little traction this year. But Democrats in both chambers acknowledge the national appetite for reform legislation has changed since the election of President Donald Trump.

“It wouldn’t be honest of me to say that some legislators are guided by the national conversation,” said Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, who pushed for gun reform in 2016. “And right now, it’s not being talked about because of the election of Donald Trump and his position with gun rights.”

Roughly 30 bills relating to firearms have been filed so far this year, less than half the number filed during the 2016 Legislative session following the Charleston Emanuel AME Church killings by convicted white supremacist Dylann Roof.

Lawmakers whose voices were among the loudest during the 2016 session are barely discussing legislation publicly, if at all. And Lee Bright, the Senate’s staunchest Second Amendment defender, lost his re-election bid.

Kimpson said “there doesn’t seem to be the same level of steam” in conversations that address the so-called “Charleston loophole” – the name given to a clerical mistake that allowed Roof to buy a gun.

House Majority Leader, Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, stressed that “any movement that would trample second amendment rights for law-abiding citizens will be met with resistance in Columbia.”

“From the vantage point of the (House) Republican Caucus as a whole, certainly honoring the second amendment is high on the agenda,” Simrill said. “People talk about loopholes, but the clear indicator is how gun rights and second amendment rights have been stymied or stepped on by regulations.”

RECIPROCITY ON THE MOVE

At least one firearms-related bill is making headway in the General Assembly. Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, authored a proposal that calls for the recognition of the concealed weapons permits of all states.

The bill has undergone a slight modification, now requiring out-of-state permit holders be 21 years old, since some states issue permits to 18-year-olds; a practice barred in South Carolina. An exception was also attached to allow those who are under 21 but are active members of the military, the National Guard or the Reserves in South Carolina to be issued concealed weapons permits.

More than 50 members have signed up as co-sponsors of the bill, which is set for debate on the House floor this week. Its advancement has frustrated Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, who has argued the bill gives more rights to out-of-state citizens, since South Carolinians would still be barred from using their permit to carry a concealed weapon in 10 states.

Smith, a gun owner, said some of the reform legislation previously proposed wasn’t about denying anyone’s second amendment rights, but about ensuring that those who are trying to buy a gun are allowed to do so.

“Clearly, that’s not priority for them,” Smith said. “If you want to look at what has happened since the Charleston (Emanuel AME) shooting, we have taken a step backward in making our nation and state safer.”

Barbara Stowe, who has driven from Greer several times to call on both chambers for reform, said it’s bothersome that Clemmons’ bill is advancing, while loophole legislation has languished.

“It’s like they have absolutely no compassion or empathy for gun violence survivors,” Stowe said. “They are not listening to us on this.”

Stowe is a volunteer with Moms Demand Action, an organization that calls for “common-sense legislation” to address gun violence. She became involved because her sister was shot and killed by an ex-boyfriend in 1997.

Like Smith, Stowe is a gun owner. She said she doesn’t want to see any one’s guns taken away. She’d just like to see an expansion of background checks. But she also said she feels the call has fallen on deaf ears.

“Since Trump has been elected, I’ve noticed a huge difference here,” Stowe said. “It’s like suddenly they had permission not to do their jobs.”

OTHER ISSUES LEAD THE WAY

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said there hasn’t been much discussion about firearms-related legislation on either side of the aisle. Plus, other issues loom, such as pension reform and infrastructure.

“We’ve been focused on other issues,” Massey said. “I think a lot of people are comfortable with the (gun) laws how they are.”

While Kimpson has yet to file legislation aiming to close the loophole, Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, has filed two proposals addressing background checks.

Kimpson said he hasn’t filed yet because he’s working to reach common ground on a bipartisan bill. With Republicans leading both chambers, bipartisanship is important to get things done, Kimpson said.

Malloy, who chaired a special guns issues committee that traveled the state in 2016, said before the state looks at expanding gun rights, legislators “really need to address background checks.”

But he, too, acknowledged the Senate has been caught up with tackling other issues this year.

“The need for responsible changes in gun laws is still very pertinent, particularly with background checks,” Malloy said. “But with the session already going on a downward slope toward the budget, it’s going to be very difficult to get any traction on a bill this year.”

Cynthia Roldán: 803-295-0435, @CynthiaRoldan

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