State Rep. Bill Herbkersman stood at the front of the sanctuary at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Lowcountry in Bluffton on Monday afternoon and explained the various iterations of .223 semiautomatic rifles.
Ammunition, he said. Sawed-off. Clips. Chambered.
There were about 40 people in the audience, and he was losing them.
The words were familiar, but it was unclear what he was trying to say.
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“Why do you have two assault rifles?” someone asked him, going back to an earlier point.
“I’m a collector,” he said quickly and then paused. “I thought they’d be banned.”
He was met with a smattering of reactive noises.
Herbkersman clarified. Law-abiding owners are not the problem.
“Look, everyone should have a gun safe,” he said.
“Well, I don’t agree with that,” a woman said loudly.
“Ma’am?” he said.
“Everyone should have a gun?!?”
“A gun safe,” he said. “A gun safe.”
“Can you get back to the point?” a man shouted to the front of the room. “I’m not sure where you’re going.”
Herbkersman, a Republican whose district includes Bluffton, was there to discuss South Carolina’s gun-related legislation with the local chapter of Moms Demand Action, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for smart gun reform across the country.
The group, started by a stay-at-home mom after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012, supports Second Amendment rights but seeks to reduce firearm deaths by promoting gun safety education and by holding lawmakers and businesses accountable for decisions made.
On Monday, the local chapter, which included a few gun owners, was specifically interested in hearing about bills currently making their way through the Legislature: One bill would extend the time law enforcement has to complete a background check; another bill would allow concealed weapons permit holders from other states to carry in South Carolina; and another bill would clear the way for public school teachers and administrators to carry concealed weapons on campus.
“Who would you recommend to be the gun carrier (at a school)?” a former educator asked Herbkersman. “The logistics of it are silly.”
“Did you read about the incident at Dairy Queen?” someone wanted to know, referring to the man who was arrested after taking selfies while holding a gun at the restaurant on Lady’s Island. “What would you suggest we do about that?”
“Do the police destroy guns that are turned in? I don’t want mine sold. I want mine destroyed,” a man said emphatically.
Herbkersman welcomed the comments but bristled occasionally.
“You can disagree with me all day long if you want,” he said when the crowd began to talk at him.
“You’re shaking your head,” he said at another point. “Knowledge is power.”
“There’s one set of facts,” he told them.
At that, the crowd laughed, lightening the mood.
“Alternative facts?” someone joked, invoking a term used recently by Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to President Trump.
It was a reminder of the political climate beyond, the debate being a smaller, more civil version of what has been happening the past few weeks in the nation and on social media.
Much like the broader discussion on gun laws, when talk became heated, people dug in deep. Assertions from each side were the predicted ones. And on each point, they seemed to slide past each other, hands extended but not quite reaching each other.
When Herbkersman, who extended his time with the group twice, told them he was searching for common ground with them, a woman in the first row asked him to clarify.
“Where do you actually see common ground? I mean that sincerely,” she said.
He paused and then replied that neither side wants to see people hurt by guns.
“That’s philosophical common ground,” she said.
Herbkersman tried again.
No parent should lose a child to gun violence. Neither side wants criminals to have guns.
Again, they pushed him. This time on background checks.
“I’m trying to get to common ground,” he said.
“Well, me too,” a voice from the audience came back.
“Without a background check,” Herbkersman said, “you shouldn’t be able to buy (a gun).”
With that, the mood lifted and the group applauded.
“There you go!” a man called out happily.
“You’re going to be sorry for saying that!” someone joked.