Although law enforcement has always been a challenging, difficult and dangerous job, the past few years have been some of the most challenging ever.
Far fewer people are choosing to go into law enforcement, and many experienced officers are leaving the field, making it difficult for police agencies to maintain adequate staffing levels, all while violent crime is on the rise in many large cities. Columbia is not immune to this trend. Targeted attacks on law enforcement (Dallas, Baton Rouge) and a rise in line-of-duty deaths have further complicated an incredibly stressful and dangerous job.
It’s against this backdrop that the S.C. House passed a bill to make it legal for people to openly carry handguns in the state, with certain location exceptions. The bill won’t become law this year, but it will be front and center when lawmakers return to Columbia in January, and we need to understand its implications.
The right to bear arms is fundamental to our democracy, but the sale, purchase, ownership and carrying of guns comes with great responsibility and use of common sense, and I firmly believe an open-carry law will significantly complicate police interactions with citizens, resulting in many unintended consequences.
Open-carry law or not, when citizens see someone with a gun, they will call the police. When responding to “person with a gun” calls, officers have few details to help them quickly determine an armed individual’s intent and whether that person poses a threat to public safety or the individual.
No doubt, we would encounter many innocent, law-abiding people who were armed in compliance with an open carry law. But some will be violent criminals, perhaps even gang members, who don’t yet have a felony on their record that prohibits them from possessing weapons.
Also let’s not forget the numerous and frequent protests, demonstrations and marches in our city. Open carry could make it extraordinarily difficult for police to protect those exercising their right to assemble and protest peacefully. There is no denying that easily accessible firearms add fuel to already emotionally charged situations, which too often results in tragedy.
Recently, Columbia police officers answered a call about a “person with a gun acting erratically” at a local Wal-Mart. It was just the second day on the job for one of the responding officers. Upon their arrival, the officers were easily able to identify the suspect, but because he was in a store with many innocent people nearby, the officers allowed him to leave the store before engaging with him. Obviously, this was a tense, dangerous situation, putting a large number of our citizens and our officers at risk as the armed suspect moved from Wal-Mart through a parking lot and into another business, ignoring officers’ commands.
Imagine this same scenario if South Carolina had an open-carry law.
Conceivably, there could have been many individuals with weapons displayed when officers arrived, making it extremely difficult to distinguish between the suspect(s), accomplices and innocent bystanders. Police would have had to make very quick judgments about whether each armed citizen was a threat. What looks like erratic behavior by the person who called the police could look like perfectly normal behavior to others. Then the split-second decision our officers have to make will be judged by others who have the luxury of time, information and a controlled environment.
South Carolina has a number of densely populated cities that welcome many visitors, students at our colleges and universities, vacationers enjoying the beaches and historic areas and spectators attending major sporting events. Does open-carry make these places safer and more welcoming? Some cities are facing increasing rates of drug addiction and crime, particularly gun crimes.
Many states prohibit openly carrying firearms. Some that allow open carry, such as Virginia and Pennsylvania, prohibit it in specific densely populated cities. I hope that if our state senators decide to take up this bill, whey will consider the unintended consequences and potential impact to our state’s image and reputation that an open-carry law could have.
Mr. Holbrook is Columbia’s police chief; contact him at ChiefHolbrook@columbiasc.net.