A bill to allow concealed firearms in businesses that serve alcohol cleared a critical hurdle Thursday as the state Senate passed the proposal without the midnight curfew that Senate Democrats had insisted on.
The bill that the Senate returned to the House would allow people who have licenses to carry concealed weapons to carry guns into bars or restaurants as long as they do not drink alcohol. Businesses also could decide not to allow firearms on their property by posting signs. The Senate vote, 34 to 3, was on an amendment to improve some of the bill’s language – changes senators said were minor.
If the House gives the bill final approval – as it is expected to do – and Gov. Nikki Haley signs it into law, it will prove a victory for 2nd Amendment advocates who had tried but failed to pass similar measures in the past. The proposal found new momentum last year in the national debate about gun rights that was sparked by mass shootings around the country.
Supporters say the bill would allow people licensed to carry concealed weapons to carry while eating dinner in a restaurant, instead of having to leave their gun in a vehicle, where it is less secure.
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Critics worry the bill could cause unintended harm.
“Three, four, five o’clock in the morning, you can be in a bar or a club – anywhere you want to be – with a handgun,” said state Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, adding the House reduced the fine for breaking the law to $2,000 from $3,000. “The bill sends a terrible message to the community. ... I think a lot of innocent people are going to get hurt.”
An earlier version of the bill, which the Senate adopted last year, would have prohibited concealed weapons in bars and restaurants from midnight to 5 a.m., a limitation sought by Senate Democrats.
But the GOP-controlled House took out that curfew requirement. The House also added changes to the state’s concealed weapons law to do away with eight hours of mandatory training required to get a permit, and make it easier for retired military and law enforcement members to get concealed permits by showing proof of their training.
“This bill is an acknowledgement that law-abiding gun owners with state-licensed training deserve to have their constitutional rights protected, not restricted,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester. “It also ensures that renewal of their permits won’t be delayed by bureaucratic backlogs.”
Scott says it is a bad idea to allow guns in bars. State law does not distinguish between restaurants that serve alcohol and bars, and drawing that distinction would be difficult, lawmakers said.
Early on in the debate, the stance that guns and alcohol do not mix was a common refrain among critics, including State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who testified to committees vetting the bill.
While they wanted the midnight curfew, other Democratic senators are agreeable to the overall proposal.
“Responsible gun ownership has always been a part of our culture and history,” said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. The bill’s Senate passage, Hutto added, “(says) we’re going to trust those who’ve demonstrated responsibility with guns ... to carry them into a restaurant if that will make them feel safer.”
Asked why Democrats did not fight harder for the curfew, Hutto replied, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.”
State Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, a supporter of the bill, said Senate Republicans only agreed to the curfew last year so that the bill could make it out of the Senate.
Outside of the General Assembly and law enforcement, the only significant organized opposition to the bill has come from a coalition of S.C. mothers who oppose expanding gun rights. Hutto said he has heard from some businesses, particularly in tourist areas, that also disapprove of the proposal.