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Lawmakers set to negotiate proposal that would loosen gun restrictions in South Carolina

Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens and members of the SC House Republican Caucus during a Statehouse news conference on January 19, 2023.
Russ McKinney
SC Public Radio
Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens and members of the SC House Republican Caucus during a Statehouse news conference on January 19, 2023.

The S.C. House voted Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, to reject Senate-approved changes to the lower chamber's so-called "constitutional carry" bill that would loosen gun restrictions in South Carolina.

South Carolina lawmakers are poised to loosen gun restrictions this year.

But before any proposal is signed into law, three legislators from the S.C. House and three from the Senate will negotiate their differences over a proposal that would eliminate permit requirements to openly carry a gun.

On Tuesday, the S.C. House rejected Senate-approved changes to the lower chamber's bill, known as "constitutional carry" or "permitless carry" legislation.

Rather than agree to those changes — a vote to agree with the Senate would have sent the legislation to the governor's desk for his signature — the House voted 85-26 to revert back to their original, "clean" version of H. 3594.

The bill's core would let gun owners carry openly without a concealed weapons permit.

It also, in part, would strengthen the punishments for people who illegally possess a firearm or ammunition — a top priority for Gov. Henry McMaster and law enforcement.

In their changes, senators stiffened those penalties and added measures that would offer state-paid training classes statewide and add legislators to a list of officials who could carry anywhere in the state.

The latter was criticized by some gun rights groups and ultra-conservative legislators, who deemed the change a further creation of a "two-tier" system that favored lawmakers over South Carolinians.

The entire bill, however, has been opposed by many Democrats and advocacy groups that argue South Carolina legislators should focus not on loosening gun restrictions but tightening the state's existing gun laws.

"It is our firm belief that this bill, in its original form, best reflects the fundamental rights and freedoms of our constituents," House Majority Leader Davey Hiott, R-Pickens, said in a statementlast Friday, indicating the GOP-controlled chamber planned to reject the changes.

The statement elicited a strong response from McMaster.

"The decision today (Feb. 8) by Republicans in the S.C. House to reject Senate changes to H. 3594 keeps the 'revolving door' for career violent criminals wide open," McMaster said.

He added, "the public is losing confidence. So am I."

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, told reporters this week that he is confident negotiators can find an agreement favorable to gun owners and law enforcement.

As of Thursday, the Senate had not named its negotiators.

The House named the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Bobby Cox of Greenville, state Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington, and state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg.

Massey told reporters that he'd let the negotiators handle the changes.

However, he added that the "two-tier" system critics hate was "essential" to get the bill out of the Senate.

On Thursday, McMaster told reporters that the bill is vital to getting "career criminals and illegal guns off the street."

"We know it'll be effective," McMaster said. "... But we must make our people safe and that is essential to doing it."

Massey told reporters he didn't expect legislators to drag the issue any further.

He said he's currently not "at a pessimistic point."

Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) is a news reporter with South Carolina Public Radio and ETV. She worked at South Carolina newspapers for a decade, previously working as a reporter and then editor of The State’s S.C. State House and politics team, and as a reporter at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News. She grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville in 2013.