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Friday, Feb. 25, 2011

SC panel approves bill expanding gun right

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Gun-rights activists applauded a vote Thursday that would allow South Carolina citizens to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.

The measure, which applies to any resident at least 21 years old who can legally own a gun, has bipartisan support in this gun-friendly state. A House panel voted unanimously to advance the amended bill to the full Judiciary Committee.

"You can't prevent a criminal from having a gun," said Byron Chafin of rural Batesburg, who has a concealed carry permit. "A law-abiding citizen should have the right to protect themselves anywhere they go."

South Carolina's top law enforcement officer said allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed guns makes people feel safer and could deter an attack, and he has no problem with it.

"You've got to have a way to defend yourself," said State Law Enforcement Division chief Reggie Lloyd, a former judge and U.S. attorney, noting his strong belief that women especially need to arm themselves against attacks.

Other law enforcement officers say they're concerned about allowing people to carry concealed guns without training.

"It's not that we're anti-gun-freedom," said Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the state Law Enforcement Officers Association. "We understand Second Amendment rights, but we want people to know how to use it."

As of Tuesday, 130,541 people in South Carolina hold permits to carry concealed weapons, according to SLED. The permitting process requires at least eight hours of training, which includes hitting 70 percent of targets with a handgun on a course that ranges from 3 to 25 yards, and education on gun safety and laws.

Opponents of the bill say that education piece is especially important.

Without it, people may assume they can carry a gun anywhere and could get in legal trouble, said Jeff Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs' Association. He doubts people would read state gun laws on their own, which specify, for example, that guns are prohibited from school sporting events, bars, and government meetings, and businesses can ban them.

Moore noted the proposal would make it harder for a South Carolinian born after 1979 to hunt than to carry a concealed weapon on the street. Hunting requires an education course and permit.

"It doesn't make sense," he said.

The main sponsor, Rep. Mike Pitts, said he understands the concerns, but it's about honoring residents' constitutional right to bear arms. While people should undergo training and would be safer if they do, the Constitution doesn't require it, he said.

"The bottom line is, we're not talking about a privilege granted by the state," said Pitts, R-Laurens, a retired law enforcement officer known for advocating gun-rights legislation. "Either you believe in the Constitution or you don't."

Nationwide, only three states allow residents to carry a concealed weapon without a permit: Alaska, Arizona and Vermont. Two states - Illinois and Wisconsin - forbid concealed carry, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Rifle Association.

South Carolina is among more than three dozen states that allow a concealed permit process without many restrictions for residents who meet the legal criteria, while other states have strict limits for who can get a permit.

Robert Butler of South Carolina's GrassRoots GunRights called the House measure a positive step that didn't go as far as the group wanted.

Members, for example, wanted to drop the age to carry from 21 to 18, saying if they're old enough to die for their country, they're old enough to carry a gun off the battlefield.

But Carlton O'Neal, a Benedict College political science major, disagreed, saying many 18-year-olds aren't mature enough.

"It should definitely stay at 21," said O'Neal, originally from Rochester, N.Y., who got his concealed weapon permit soon after turning 21 last August. "When you're 18, you do more wild things."

Theodore Hill, another Benedict student at the meeting, said he believes the bill could make the streets safer. The Bloomfield, N.J., native and criminal justice major said criminals may be less likely to rob or attack someone if they're unsure whether their potential victim is packing.


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