Politics & Government

Trump wants to block gun access to some people with mental illness. SC already does that

When is a background check mandatory for gun owners?

The Brady Act made background checks a requirement for guns purchased through licensed dealers. Here’s a brief look at how the current system works.
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The Brady Act made background checks a requirement for guns purchased through licensed dealers. Here’s a brief look at how the current system works.

After more than 30 people were killed in a pair of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the weekend, lawmakers across the country, and President Donald Trump, have called for strengthening laws that could stop some people with mental illness from obtaining guns.

South Carolina already has a law on the books that does just that.

More than 95,000 South Carolinians have been prohibited by local courts from accessing or buying guns under a state law passed in 2013, according to data from the state Law Enforcement Division.

The Ashley Hall law, named for the Charleston private school where an armed woman was arrested after trying to shoot an employee, allows South Carolina law enforcement officials to enter into a national background check system the names of residents found to have a mental illness in court or committed to a mental institution.

The law, passed in May 2013 just a few months after the near shooting, also makes it a felony for anyone adjudicated to have a mental illness to “ship, transport, possess or receive” a firearm or ammunition.

More than 16,700 residents’ names were entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in 2013, according to SLED data. In 2014, that number jumped to more than 50,000 as local officials developed systems to implement the new law, SLED spokeswoman Kathryn Richardson said.

The names added to the list as a result of the Ashley Hall law account for nearly 90% of names given to the national background check database by S.C. law enforcement officials.

Since 2013, nearly 2,000 South Carolina residents have been denied a request to buy a gun because their name was in the national database. Most of them were denied because of the Ashley Hall law, Richardson said.

But landing on the list doesn’t mean that residents are prohibited from buying guns forever. A total of 80 people have successfully petitioned a judge to remove their name from the list in South Carolina, according to SLED data.

State Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, said the S.C. law could serve as a model for other states looking to pass laws to prohibit residents with mental illness from purchasing guns.

“It’s a program that appears to be and seems to be working for us,” Tallon, who sponsored the 2013 law, said. “And if it works for us, it’ll work for other states.”

According to gun-law advocate the Gifford’s Law Center, only four states currently do not require mental ill adjudications to be reported to national authorities: Arkansas, Michigan, Ohio and Utah.

Before the law passed, gun purchasers were expected to report themselves if they had been found mentally unfit in a court, Tallon said. But potential buyers were not always reliable.

“Until we started reporting (adjudications), every county’s probate courts reporting that, there was no way of knowing,” Tallon said.

What made the Ashley Hall bill successful at the State House was the support it received from Republicans, Democrats, law enforcement officials and even the National Rifle Association, Tallon said. Additionally, it gained support for having a provision that could allow those who had been adjudicated to have a mental illness to petition a court to “have their rights restored.”

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Though the state Legislature has not passed any other significant gun laws since 2013 — even in the wake of a deadly 2015 shooting at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME church — Tallon said he believes the law could get passed again today.

And in the days after the deadly shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, though, there has been a renewed call from Palmetto State lawmakers to pass some sort of gun legislation.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham called on Congress to pass “red flag laws,” which would allow family members to appeal to judges to prohibit someone from purchasing or accessing guns. His proposal was seconded by Trump on Monday.

U.S. Reps. Jim Clyburn and Joe Cunningham, South Carolina’s two Democrats in Congress, criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, for refusing to allow his chamber to vote on a House-passed bill that would close the so-called “Charleston loophole.” The loophole is a federal law that allows gun purchases to go through if federal background checks have not been finished after three days.

Cunningham also called for McConnell to allow a vote on another House-passed bill that would require universal criminal background checks for all gun purchases.

Within the halls of the S.C. State House, Democrats have urged Republican leaders, including GOP Gov. Henry McMaster, to recall legislators for an emergency session to vote on gun and hate crime bills. Both bills previously stalled out in committee earlier this year.

Though it’s highly unlikely that legislators will be asked to return to Columbia this year, the debate likely will continue as other lawmakers have announced plans to introduce hate crime-related legislation for the 2020 session.

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Emily Bohatch helps cover South Carolina’s government for The State. She also updates The State’s databases. Her accomplishments include winning a Green Eyeshade award in Disaster Reporting in 2018 for her teamwork reporting on Hurricane Irma. She has a degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.