With a bill allowing concealed guns in businesses that serve alcohol primed to pass in the Statehouse, Beaufort County's sheriff says the thought of armed bar patrons isn't comforting, but said it's too soon to judge.
"We'll just have to see how these changes play out," Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said.
"I believe in the right to bear arms and exercising constitutional rights," he added. "At the same time, it's a gun at a bar. And that can be a bad thing -- a gun at a bar."
The legislation would allow those with licenses to carry concealed weapons to bring guns into bars and restaurants as long as they do not drink alcohol.
Businesses also could decide not to allow firearms on their property by posting signs.
Penalties for violating the law -- such as drinking with a concealed weapon in a bar -- include a $2,000 fine, a possible two-year jail sentence and a five-year suspension of the offender's permit, according to the bill.
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," said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who sponsored the bill. "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."
The state Senate passed the proposal 34-3 on Thursday, with Davis voting for the bill. The House is set to take up the measure this week.
Critics in Columbia have said the rule change would make bars and restaurants more dangerous -- a claim Davis says is false.
"Statistically, (concealed weapons permit) holders are a more law-abiding bunch than the populace as a whole," he said.
Tanner agreed but said the law could make some restaurant patrons uncomfortable, especially those unfamiliar with the rule change.
"If someone is sitting there and sees what looks like a gun on the person next to them, they're probably going to call law enforcement," he said.
The thought of citizens taking matters into their own hands also makes him uneasy.
"I don't want someone innocent getting injured because there was a gun at a bar," he said. "If they are in there with a concealed weapons permit not drinking but a fight breaks out, ... all of a sudden we have someone wanting to be a hero. Hopefully they use common sense."
Mark Wolf, owner of The Fillin' Station in Beaufort, said he will initially allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons in his tavern.
"If they aren't drinking, it shouldn't be a problem," he said. "I want to see how it goes and determine from there whether we put a sign up to outlaw the weapons."
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.