Bill would allow lawmakers to carry guns at Statehouse

Valid concealed weapons permit required

COLUMBIA -- Lawmakers could soon be packing heat while working at the Statehouse, visiting schools or taking care of business at other publicly owned buildings.

A bill, pending before a House subcommittee Thursday, would allow some members of the state's General Assembly to carry firearms around the Capitol grounds and into other public buildings such as schools.

The change in state law would only apply to lawmakers who have a valid concealed weapons permit, which signifies they have undergone eight hours of handgun training and passed criminal and mental background checks.

The bill's sponsor Rep. Keith Kelly, R-Spartanburg, filed the bill late in the session last year after he learned 12 other categories of public servants but not lawmakers are allowed to carry firearms into public buildings while doing business. Those public servants are Supreme Court justices and other judges, along with solicitors and workers' compensation commissioners.

"I looked at that statute and wondered why members of the General Assembly can't carry by virtue of holding office," Kelly said. "I'm just saying add the 170 members. If the good people have put you in this position, then you ought to be able to carry."

Kelly, a family law attorney, and several other lawmakers say they have concealed weapons in order to protect themselves but are bothered by the fact they have to take the firearms out of their vehicles before they park at the Statehouse or attend functions at other publicly owned buildings.

State law prohibits firearms anywhere on the Statehouse grounds, including its parking garage. They also are prohibited in public buildings unless permission is given, which is done on a case-by-case basis.

One of the bill's backers, Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, estimates about half the General Assembly members keep guns in their cars, some while they are working at the Statehouse.

Rutherford said he has carried a firearm in his car since his days as a prosecutor and has continued as a lawmaker. "I think (the General Assembly) is the most well-armed group in South Carolina," Rutherford said.

"Some of the odd mail that I get, some of the phone calls I get, some of it can be interpreted as a threat. I have a family to think about," Rutherford said. "(The bill) makes sense given the fact that my home address is listed. My home address, my phone number is listed. My picture is given out. You see what happened in that City Council chamber in Missouri. You never know what person is angered or upset and who's going to come after you."

Rutherford was referring to a gunman killing five city officials during a City Council meeting in Kirkwood, Mo., before police killed the gunman.

Good guy or bad guy?

Still, Rutherford said he hopes the bill is amended to prohibit lawmakers from carrying guns into Statehouse buildings. Otherwise, police might have a hard time telling the good guys from the bad guys, Rutherford said.

Others worry the measure has the potential to turn heated debates among lawmakers into deadly attacks.

"We just don't need this bill," said Sen. Kay Patterson, D-Richland, noting the Statehouse is protected by security officers and metal detectors.

The complex also is undergoing $5.3 million in security upgrades, including new security checkpoints at the garage entrances and cameras and metal detectors at state office buildings.

Kelly said his intent is not to encourage lawmakers to carry guns into Statehouse chambers.

"I don't think for a minute that (lawmakers) would bring them into a chamber," Kelly said. "I think we have more respect for the institution than that."