COLUMBIA -- Voters would be hard-pressed to find a South Carolina politician who does not support guns, but the candidates are showing just how much they love them this election year.
Gov. Nikki Haley posted a photo of the Beretta handgun she received as a Christmas present from her husband on Facebook. A Democratic operative responded by posting photos on Twitter of her challenger, Vincent Sheheen, with a shotgun.
State Rep. Todd Rutherford, the Democratic House leader, received a large round of applause from fellow lawmakers when he said that he supported a bill allowing South Carolinians with concealed weapons permits to carry their guns into restaurants and bars that serve alcohol.
Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham posted a photo on Instagram of him shooting in Edgefield while his GOP primary opponents debated in Myrtle Beach this month.
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Meanwhile, one of Graham's GOP challengers, state Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg, is raffling an AR-15 military-style rifle next month. ''If elected to the U.S. Senate, I'll continue to stand up and FIGHT for our gun rights,'' Bright wrote in an email to supporters.
GOP politicians are showing off their guns -- or their support of them -- after the Obama administration threatened to toughen background checks and ban military-style guns, Republican lawmakers said.
Democratic legislators say their pro-gun stances are about backing states rights.
"In the past, you didn't talk much about guns," Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan said. "It was assumed everyone owned guns. Now, you have to say something about this."
Graham said his pro-gun stance puts him in agreement with many South Carolinians.
"I want to let people know, when it comes to guns, I am a responsible gun owner and that I'm in their corner," said the state's senior senator from Seneca.
Campaigning in South Carolina is about ''faith, family, kissing babies and loving guns,'' said S.C. GOP consultant Chip Felkel of Greenville. "It's smart politics here."
Many candidates tout their gun records.
Haley's official biography lists her lifetime "A" rating from the National Rifle Association. Bright bragged about his NRA "A" rating in
his raffle emails. Graham also has received top grades from the gun rights group.
"In South Carolina, there's a bragging point to having an 'A' rating from the NRA," longtime S.C. Republican consultant Richard Quinn said. (The NRA declined to share a list of S.C. politicians' ratings.)
A candidate can try to be more pro-gun than their opponent, Quinn said.
Today, part of that seems to be showing off guns on social media, a trend that Quinn is not a fan of.
"I like to see my candidates keep a sense of dignity," said Quinn, a longtime Graham supporter and counselor.
'Nothing wrong in validating you're a hunter.'
That's what Democrat Sheheen is portraying in his governor's race, his supporters said.
"When he talks about guns, it's spending time with his family and the sport of it," said Kristin Sosaine, a spokeswoman for the S.C. Democratic Party. "It's not about, 'Look at this cool gun I got.'"
One of Sheheen's television ads from his 2010 gubernatorial campaign featured him and his sons with shotguns.
Sheheen voted for the guns-in-bars bill last month to help permit holders avoid confusion over which restaurants they could carry their weapons into, Sosaine said.
"It didn't make sense you could take your gun to a Chick-fil-A (which does not serve alcohol) but not an Applebee's," which does, she said.
Haley's campaign did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but the first-term Republican's position on guns is clear -- especially on social media.
In addition to showing off her handgun Christmas present, a video, produced by the Governor's Office, shows Haley firing a machine gun at a Columbia arms maker this summer that went viral.
After the House passed the guns-in-bars bill last month, the governor's spokesman, Doug Mayer, said: "Gov. Haley ... will sign any bill that doesn't restrict the rights of gun owners."
'It's not the weapon'
While both sides of the political aisle agree being pro-gun is popular in South Carolina, they differ on what's behind the rising interest in politicians trumpeting gun rights.
GOP politicos cite Democratic President Obama's statements advocating gun control as fueling fears among gun owners. That could work in their favor of pro-gun politicians in a state that Obama lost by about 10 percentage points in both 2008 and 2012.
"Republican voters feel he uses executive orders a little too much, and they think in his last three years that he doesn't have anything to lose politically," Citadel political scientist Buchanan said.
Graham said federal officials want to take weapons away from lawful gun owners instead of doing what they should do, focusing on the mentally ill.
"It's not the weapon. It's the person behind it," he said.
Graham said the federal government should not ban military-style weapons, saying, "The AR-15 is a better defense against gangs."
What Republicans see as standing up to an anti-gun assault from the White House, Democrats view as defending states' rights.
"This is not just about the Second Amendment, but the ability to keep the government out of our lives," Democrat Rutherford said. "I don't want the government to tell me what I can do."
Rutherford, who like other House members is up for re-election this year, said he doesn't have a concealed weapons permit because he does not want to give the government his fingerprints and gun-ownership records.
State Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, an Obama backer who is running for lieutenant governor, said Democrats' support for guns has "nothing to do with Washington," adding, "I side with those who fought for liberty and fought for freedom."
With that bi partisan support, Rutherford said don't expect the General Assembly to back away from the Second Amendment.
"Anything resembling curbing guns is not going to happen," he said.
Debate on the guns-in-bars bill was stalled briefly in both state chambers by a small group of lawmakers who questioned the wisdom of mixing alcohol and weapons.
But they could not overcome the overwhelming support for the measure. Just 23 of the 146 lawmakers casting votes in the House and Senate opposed the bill last month.
State Sen. Thomas McElveen, a Sumter Democrat who calls himself pro-common sense on gun ownership, backed curfews on allowing guns in bars.
"Even in the Wild West, people had to check their guns at the bar," he said.
Still, McElveen ended up joining 33 senators in approving the bill.
"I don't know of anyone in the Senate who wants to take guns away," he said. "But there's this feeling of everything involving guns is sacred. A lot of lawmakers have become afraid of it. In the back of my mind, I'm worried I will be labeled anti-gun."
Rutherford said he supported the guns-in-bars bill because a friend has had to leave his concealed weapon in his car when they go out. The gun can be stolen from the car.
"It's safer if he can take it with him," Rutherford said.
McElveen said he does not expect many bars to allow guns out of liability concerns. "It's more of a political bill,"he said.
Yet another gun bill is still in the works that would allow South Carolinians to carry guns without a permit. That bill was introduced by
'I already got one'
The most brazen pro-gun political act of the season, thus far, has been Bright's AR-15 rifle raffle.
It raised a few eyebrows, especially for mentioning the 2012 Connecticut school shooting that killed 20 children and six adults.
GOP political consultant Wesley Donehue tweeted after Bright's first email that the senator should apologize: "(T)hat's the kind of dumb (stuff) that makes us look crazy and helps elect liberals like Barack Obama."
Bright said giving away an AR-15 demonstrates that the Second Amendment allows Americans to protect themselves with whatever gun they choose.
"They expect that right," he said.
Bright, one of four GOP challengers who want to unseat Graham, is trying to show his pro-gun muscle against the senator. Voters will not be fooled by Graham just because he fires a gun, Bright said.
South Carolina's senior U.S. senator needs to beat back any efforts to curb guns and ammunition sales, Bright said. "People are very concerned about Washington's power grab," he said.
Graham said his support of gun ownership rights speaks for itself.
The senator did not have an opinion about Bright's AR-15 raffle except that he did not need to sign up.
"I already got one," he said.