Guns and alcohol don't mix, Beaufort County bar owners say

dburley@islandpacket.comFebruary 8, 2014 

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Some Beaufort County bar and restaurant owners say guns and alcohol are a losing combination.

This week, when Gov. Nikki Haley signs a bill allowing South Carolinians with concealed-weapons permits to carry firearms into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, signs prohibiting those weapons will go up in some businesses across the county.

Other establishments, also wary, are deciding to wait and see.

Thomas Viljac, owner of the Old Town Dispensary in Bluffton, said he's not worried about gun owners being responsible. He just does not want concealed weapons near patrons who have been drinking alcohol.

"We've talked about it, and we don't want anybody in the bar with a gun," he said. "Mixing alcohol with weapons -- that's risky."

Viljac said his Calhoun Street tavern will post signs to prohibit concealed weapons.

The bill received final legislative approval last month. It will go to Haley's desk for her signature this week.

The law would allow patrons to carry licensed concealed weapons into restaurants and bars as long as they do not drink alcohol.

But businesses do not have to allow guns on their property. They can opt out by posting signs prohibiting concealed weapons. Also, patrons carrying guns must leave the business if asked.

The bill also made some changes to the state's concealed-weapons law, doing away with a requirement that training must take at least eight hours to complete. Under the rule change, military and law enforcement veterans can show proof of training and get their permits faster.

Advocates say the bill would allow people to protect themselves when walking through a dark parking lot to a restaurant, for example. It would also allow licensed gun owners to carry a firearm while eating dinner in a restaurant, instead of having to leave their gun in a vehicle, where it is less secure.

"It proposes nothing radical," Sen. Tom Davis, one of the bill's sponsors, said last month. "The vast majority of states already allow concealed handguns in establishments that serve alcohol. South Carolina is one of only six states that prohibit it. Law-abiding gun owners with state-licensed training deserve to have their constitutional rights protected, not restricted."

Some local restaurant owners whose businesses don't center on alcohol sales say the bill won't change much.

"We're a restaurant that serves beer and wine, not a bar that serves food," said Bluffton Town Councilman Larry Toomer, who owns Bluffton Oyster Co. "People don't really come here to drink, but mostly to eat."

"I don't really see the need to carry a gun to dinner, though," added Toomer, a gun owner.

But for those businesses whose patrons are more likely to drink, guns could pose a problem.

"At first blush, I'm not in favor of it," said John Kelm, manager at the Clubhouse at Okatie Creek near Sun City Hilton Head. "And what is the liability if gun owners do drink? Is it on the restaurant serving them?"

Kelm said he doesn't think his restaurant will immediately ban concealed weapons, but it could happen soon.

"You want to be proactive, not reactive, when it comes to handguns," he said.

Nick Borreggine, who owns Fat Patties in Port Royal, said he understands a person's right to self-protection. But the law seems hard to police.

"How can we make sure those with guns don't drink?" he asked. "Are we going to have to frisk everybody at the door and card them before we give them a beer?"

One Hot Mama's, one of several bars in The Triangle on Hilton Head Island, doesn't have to make a decision. Its insurance doesn't allow weapons on the premises, and signs are already up preventing concealed firearms.

"We're lucky, too," manager Josh Werner said. "It seems like it could be dangerous."

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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