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S.C. legislators agree on gun rights

Legislation weaving its way through the House of Representatives would increase the number of places that legal gun owners can carry their guns to include restaurants, day-care centers and churches.

"It puts criminals on the defense," said state Rep. Thad Viers, R-Horry, a co-sponsor of the bill and the owner of about 25 firearms and a concealed weapons permit. "Criminals don't know if you're carrying or not."

If it passes, the bill will become just one of many pro-gun bills to win legislative approval in South Carolina - a state where being pro-gun is a priority for Republican and Democratic lawmakers.


"It's cultural," said state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, who also has a concealed weapons permit.

And S.C. voters love it, adds a USC professor, noting 89 percent voted last fall to make hunting a constitutional right.

In fact, in South Carolina, the fights come when gun advocates say proposals don't go far enough.

Take the Viers-backed bill.

Some gun advocates, including GrassRoots South Carolina, oppose an amended version of his bill, saying it violates the constitutional rights of gun owners by limiting the places that out-of-staters and young adults can carry their guns.

"While the [amended] bill might make it better for people in South Carolina, it's going to be a lot worse for others, including those visiting us," said Ed Kelleher, president of GrassRoots South Carolina. "We depend on tourism here, and this has a chilling effect on that."

Under the amended bill, it would continue to be illegal for gun owners to carry their weapons into courthouses, police stations, schools, prisons, polling sites and any place that posts a sign prohibiting concealed weapons.

GrassRoots South Carolina and the National Rifle Association, a national gun rights organization, are working with lawmakers to restore it to its original version.

That version, introduced by state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, would increase the places gun owners could carry guns, eliminate the need for a concealed weapons permit in South Carolina and allow out-of-staters who legally own guns to carry them in South Carolina.

'Everybody has a gun'

Unlike some other states, S.C. Democrats back gun rights too.

"Democrats in South Carolina, we're a fairly moderate bunch," said state Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, who took a concealed weapons permit course several years ago with now-Gov. Nikki Haley, a Lexington Republican. The class was taught by a fellow House member, state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens.

"We believe in the Second Amendment," Sellers said of S.C. Democrats, "but still believe in fighting for public education and the other Democratic priorities."

Sellers, who also has a pro-gun bill pending, said he has never heard of an anti-gun organization in South Carolina.

"They wouldn't have any members," he said. "You take a district like mine. Everybody has a gun. Everybody hunts - black, white, everybody."

Why do S.C. lawmakers love guns?

"When I talk to people from places like New York, they've never seen guns, never been around them," Rutherford said.

"But in South Carolina, we grew up with them, know how to use them, have a level of comfort with them," said the Richland Democrat, who introduced a bill this year to grant limited pardons to those convicted of nonviolent felonies so they could carry guns to hunt.

That level of comfort shows at the ballot box.

Robert Oldendick, a USC political science professor, points to November's general election results - where voters made hunting and fishing constitutional rights in South Carolina - as proof of the state's love of guns.

"In this state, gun rights are like the flag and apple pie. A majority of people agree with it," Oldendick said. "That's true among most Southern states. But even among them, we're probably near the top in terms of supporting gun rights."

Extreme and radical?

The National Rifle Association considers South Carolina a gun-friendly state, said Rachel Parsons, spokeswoman for the national gun-rights organization. "But there's always more work to do to protect the gun rights of lawful people."

While some other states have seen a flurry of gun-control legislation since January's shooting in Arizona that left a federal judge dead and a congresswoman critically injured, South Carolina has not.

Instead, in response to that shooting, state Rep. Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, introduced a bill to let lawmakers carry guns into more places. That way, Vick said, they could prevent similar tragedies.

That bill failed, however, because other lawmakers said they wanted to expand gun rights for everyone, not just elected officials.

"There's definitely an uptick of gun-control bills, but not in places like South Carolina," said Brian Malte, director of state legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The D.C.-based organization, which does limited work in South Carolina, has concerns about some of the gun bills finding their way into Palmetto State law, particularly the proposal to allow any gun owner to carry a weapon without a concealed-weapons permit.

"The gun lobby is trying to get a gun in every nook and cranny of society," said Malte.

"This is getting extreme and radical."