Officials fear open carry gun law could impact Grand Strand’s image

A bill that supporters argue would strengthen Second Amendment rights could be a disaster for the image of the Grand Strand, officials in multiple jurisdictions said.

On Tuesday, Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall said a measure under consideration in the general assembly could make law enforcement’s job more difficult, because it would be legal to carry a weapon openly as long as a user doesn’t intend to use it for an unlawful purpose. But police can only prove someone intended to use a gun unlawfully after a crime has occurred, he said.

The bill, which has passed the S.C. House of Representatives and moved to the Senate, does not require a permit for open carry.

“I don’t think they’re going to pass it this year. But imagine walking down Ocean Boulevard on Easter weekend, Fourth of July weekend, Memorial Day weekend, Labor Day weekend, and everybody down there is carrying a pistol on their side because they can,” Gall said.

Myrtle Beach has recently seen a string of shootings, many in the downtown area near or on Ocean Boulevard. Officials are grappling with multiple ways to calm the atmosphere there, but Councilwoman Mary Jeffcoat said controlling the flow of firearms could be an impossible task for local police.

“I don’t know how many people in town have guns,” she said Tuesday. “I don’t know if we’ve even guessed how many people have guns, but I bet it’s a lot of them. I’m surprised we don’t have more shootings on weekends.”

Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, is a retired Greenville police officer sponsoring the bill. The Sun News could not reach Pitts on Friday, but he has said the bill is intended to protect the constitutional right to bear arms. Gov. Henry McMaster also has said he would sign the measure, if it reaches his desk.

But locally, officials from jurisdictions other than Myrtle Beach also said the legislation could be misguided.

Chief Joseph Hill of the Horry County Police Department previously worked in Virginia, which allows open carry. He said that he hadn’t seen issues with it there, but said in his personal opinion, a proliferation of guns in public could run counter to the intended brand of the Myrtle Beach area — a family friendly resort town.

“Where are you gonna strap it when you’re in your flip flops and your shorts on the beach?” Hill asked.

“I don’t think it will work here,” he said. “I don’t have any personal objections to it other than it doesn’t fit the culture of Myrtle Beach.”

The area also is flooded with tourists from places like Canada, which has radically different gun laws. Several people interviewed for this story said that the image of open firearms could scare off tourists from different regions — including Robert Battista, who owns 707 Gun Shop, in Socastee.

Battista said the current system to obtain a concealed carry permit is straightforward, and it ensures firearm owners are educated in the law and how to operate their weapons.

“You have the right, but you also have the responsibility,” he said.

In Surfside Beach, with the slogan “The Family Beach,” Mayor Bob Childs said he had reservations about open carry. In North Myrtle Beach, Mayor Marilyn Hatley said the spectacle of visitors walking around with guns on their hips didn’t square with the city’s reputation as a safe destination.

She said she didn’t know if open carry would increase crime, but “we certainly don’t want to give it that opportunity.”

Aside from its image, the question of open carry in Myrtle Beach brings an additional worry because of the recent crime.

“We’re going to still have the criminal that’s willing to use a gun for a criminal purpose or a wrong purpose,” Myrtle Beach Councilman Wayne Gray told The Sun News. “When you’re just out walking around in the public realm, I don’t know that that’s going to [make] us any more safe.”

“It scares me,” Gray added.

Gray said he is planning to suggest a plan to fund more police officers in a special city council meeting on Tuesday. Battista also said Myrtle Beach needs to find ways to keep more officers on the street, and perhaps put a police substation downtown.

But Jeffcoat, the councilwoman, was less optimistic in discussions last Tuesday.

“I don’t know how many people on a given weekend in this town are carrying a gun,” she said. “But you add the right to carry a gun, and you add drugs and fights and gangs and drunkenness and domestic violence, and I don’t know how we can staff up a police force to proactively prevent somebody that has a gun and wants to shoot it from shooting it.”

Chloe Johnson: 843-626-0381, @_ChloeAJ

Elizabeth Townsend: 843-626-0217, @TSN_etownsend