State Sen. Lee Bright and former University of South Carolina student body president Andrew Gaeckle both have had experiences with firearms.
As a child, Bright watched his mother use a shotgun to defend their home against an intruder. Today, the Spartanburg Republican is calling for expanding gun rights and arming teachers.
Gaeckle was shot in the back in January 2011. Today, he is among those saying that putting more guns in more hands will not help stop the nation’s gun violence.
The two men are among thousands nationwide weighing in on the debate over whether the United States needs more gun laws or more people with guns. Their differing positions reflect just how far apart opinions on gun control and gun rights are in the wake of December’s Newtown, Conn., slaughter, when a gunman killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That shooting followed close on the heels of massacres in Colorado and Wisconsin.
Immediately after Newtown, South Carolina’s conservative members of Congress warned against reactionary legislation that would erode the right to bear arms.
President Barack Obama subsequently pledged to try to pass sweeping gun-control reforms, including expanding background checks, banning high-capacity ammunition magazines, re-establishing an assault-weapons ban, and providing more support for police officers, school-safety plans and mental-health services.
Activists on both sides of the issue are engaged.
Post-Newtown, S.C. legislators have filed nearly two dozen gun and school-safety proposals. Most would allow more individuals to carry firearms. Other proposals would arm teachers or place more police officers in schools. In gun-friendly South Carolina, only a handful of the proposals would restrict gun rights or strengthen penalties on firearm-related crimes.
Many of the bills are “a reaction to what happened in Newtown and just the horrible tragedy that occurred there, and the fear that something like that could happen here,” said state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, where many of the gun-related bills now reside.
They also are a reaction to the way guns have intersected the lives of South Carolinians.
Right to carry
When Bright was 10 years old, someone tried to break into his parents’ home.
It was 3 a.m. Bright’s father was working the overnight shift. His mother grabbed a shotgun, pointed it at the door and warned the would-be intruder to leave or she would shoot.
Hearing her warning, whoever it was “went away,” Bright said Friday, standing in the audience of a 2nd Amendment rally organized on the State House grounds.
“That’s something you don’t forget,” said Bright, 43, who is sponsoring at least six state Senate bills that would expand gun rights, arm teachers, teach students how to shoot and attempt to nullify federal gun laws.
Bright owns a handgun that he keeps at home but does not have a concealed-weapons permit. “I shouldn’t have to have a permit to assert a right I already have,” he said.
He used to own a few shotguns. He discovered them missing from a closet months after, he suspects, they were stolen — when his house underwent renovations and strangers were in and out. He has not replaced the guns.
Bright would like to see schools teach students to shoot and take care of guns. He supports teachers having guns with them in the classroom.
Bright also is cosponsoring a bill called the Constitutional Carry Act of 2013, which would eliminate the state permit that a gun owner is required to get before carrying a concealed firearm. If adopted, weapons could be carried anyplace where it is not prohibited by a sign or the property owner. The bill would leave in place laws prohibiting felons from carrying firearms.
A similar proposal never made it out of Senate Judiciary Committee last year.
Hearings on this year’s Constitutional Carry proposal are scheduled for this month and next in North Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Greenville and Rock Hill.
Bright says he looks forward to hearing what the public has to say. If the public gets behind the bill, it will move forward, he predicts.
Bright also has introduced bills that would attempt to nullify federal laws restricting guns or establish exemptions to those laws for firearms and accessories made and kept in the state. Critics say the proposals are unconstitutional.
Bright’s proposals are not new ideas in the state or nation. They stem from a neo-nullification movement that contends the federal government does not have authority over rights that supporters say are reserved to states and individuals under the Constitution.
The nullification proposals are more of a “statement” than serious legislation, says Martin, who has been in the Legislature since 1979.
“Federal case law doesn’t support that theory of nullification,” said Martin. “That’s not an opinion of mine. That’s simply a fact.”
State Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, was less delicate in characterizing legislative attempts to nullify federal law.
“One word — ignorant,” Smith said. “The bills lack a basic understanding of our democracy and the Constitution.”
But, Smith added, “Just because (a bill) might be facially unconstitutional, it doesn’t prevent the General Assembly from passing (it).”
Gunshot to gun control
When former USC student body president Gaeckle, 25, found himself staring down the barrel of a gun, he was not wishing he had a gun to pull on his attacker.
“You’re in absolute shock. You’re completely blindsided; your brain is not thinking,” said the 2009 USC graduate, who was living and working in Washington when he was attacked.
All Gaeckle said he was thinking about was how to get out of the situation.
Gaeckle gave his cellphone and wallet to the gunman, who gave him his wallet back, pushed him to the curb and told him to get going. Gaeckle only had started running when the gunman fired a bullet into his back that went through his liver, diaphragm and lung.
In the days following, as police failed to identify the gunman, Gaeckle started thinking, “Do I get irate and frustrated that they’re not finding this guy? Or do I look at it on another level: Why did this even happen in the first place? What’s the bigger picture?”
Gaeckle was shot three weeks after then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head in Tucson. As he recovered, he watched her do the same on the national news and was inspired, he said.
Gaeckle has sought ways to memorialize his own shooting, including an annual “celebration of life” party. This January, Giffords’ announcement that she was starting a new political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions, prompted Gaeckle to turn his annual party into a fundraiser for the group. He is using a crowd-surfing website, Attacking Gaeck is Whack, to raise money for Giffords’ PAC.
Gaeckle’s family owns some land, where he hunts for pheasants. Prior to his shooting, he says he never was for or against the National Rifle Association, the most prominent pro-gun voice in the national debate.
Now, he says, “The conversation around gun violence, gun rights (and) gun legislation has been one-sided, told through the (National Rifle Association).” Giffords’ PAC is “advocating for a different side of this debate,” he adds.
While people should have access to guns, the real problem is keeping guns “out of the hands of people who want to do harm to us,” Gaeckle said. The country should focus on improving access to mental-health services and eliminating gun trafficking, he added.
He questions the value of other ideas, including arming teachers to make schools safer. “I just don’t think it makes us that much safer.”
Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.