Conservative South Carolina Senate debates a gun bill with an uncertain future

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina Senate started Wednesday a debate on whether anyone who can legally own a gun can carry their weapon in public. But whether the bill has enough votes to pass in this conservative state is uncertain.

Twenty-seven other states allow open carry of guns without a permit, including nearly every one in the Deep South.

But in South Carolina, some conservatives are torn by the weight of a number of law enforcement leaders who want to maintain training for people to carry guns in public and worry about officers arriving at shooting scenes where they might encounter a number of armed people as they try to assess who is a threat and who is trying to help.

Right now, South Carolina requires anyone who wants to carry a handgun openly to get a concealed weapons permit, which requires training in gun safety and firing the weapon. That law passed in 2021. People going hunting or carrying long guns don't need the permit.

The South Carolina House easily passed the bill last year, but supporters have been uncertain if they have the votes in the Senate. If the proposal doesn't pass before the end of session, it has to start from the beginning of the process in 2025.

Sen. Shane Martin has pushed to get a debate and a vote because the Republican from Spartanburg County said South Carolina is keeping them from fully recognizing the right to bear arms in the U.S. Constitution.

“They want the right to exercise their Second Amendment rights without the infringement of the government,” Martin said.

Senate rules mean supporters likely would need more than just a majority to pass the bill. Supporters need 26 of the 46 members to end a filibuster on the proposal. Just five Republicans could join all Democrats to prevent a vote.

No vote was expected on the bill on Wednesday. Some senators warned the debate could go into next week.

Democrats started the debate asking Martin if he would consider changes to the bill to prevent people found mentally ill by a court from owning a gun or strengthen prohibitions on people suspected or convicted of domestic violence from having a pistol. He said he would talk to them.

The bill as written would still restrict people from bringing guns into detention centers, courthouses, polling places, government offices, school athletic events, schools, religious sanctuaries and doctor’s offices, among other locations.

Democratic Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a former prosecutor from Columbia who says he has a concealed weapons permit and sometimes carries a gun for his safety, asked Martin if he is willing to remove the ban on weapons in the Statehouse so people would have the same right to carry weapons as the do in public.

Martin said he thinks the Second Amendment means that is OK.

“Anyone can strap one on and sit up there, Senator from Spartanburg," Harpootlian said, motioning at the Senate gallery. "It will also allow us to strap on one, so if they start firing on us, we can fire back.”

Complicating the debate from both sides is the addition of a proposal that would create a state crime for a felon possessing a weapon, with similar prison time and other punishments as federal law. It is one of Gov. Henry McMaster’s top priorities, with supporters saying it would allow longer prison time for people who are repeat offenders when federal prosecutors don’t want to get involved.

House leaders said they felt that addition would help pass the bill. Others from both sides of the open carry debate have said that idea should be in a separate bill.