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Lawmakers packing more than legislation

COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's lawmakers are far more armed than their constituents.

About one in 50 South Carolinians 21 and older has a permit to legally carry a concealed firearm.

One in five state lawmakers has a concealed-weapons permit.

According to an analysis by The State newspaper, 40 lawmakers -- seven of 46 state senators and 33 of 124 state representatives -- can carry a firearm legally.

How many state lawmakers carry concealed weapons has become an issue because of two proposals before the Legislature.

One would make secret the now-public list of South Carolinians who can carry concealed weapons. The other proposal -- watered down last week -- would allow anyone to keep a weapon in a car while parked at the Statehouse.

Lawmakers who pack heat interviewed by The State say they carry concealed weapons primarily out of fear of the unknown.

"Lawmakers fall into that category of people who sometimes become targets," said Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, who doesn't have a concealed-weapons permit but keeps a Glock in his car.

Special privilege?

Under state law, a person can keep a firearm in his or her home or car without a special permit.

However, carrying a firearm on one's person requires a concealed-weapons permit.

Thirty-eight lawmakers have permits, according to the list kept by the State Law Enforcement Division. Two other lawmakers --Rep. Dennis Moss, D-Cherokee, and Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, -- can carry a handgun legally because they're retired law-enforcement officers.

State and federal judges and solicitors also can carry concealed weapons. They, like law-enforcement officers, can carry them in any public place.

A House proposal looked to extend that carry-anywhere privilege to lawmakers, allowing those with concealed-weapons permits to carry firearms into public places.

Bill supporters include Rutherford, who emphasized that having a public profile like lawmakers do can be unnerving.

"Most people ain't in the newspaper and ain't on the news," Rutherford told other lawmakers in a committee meeting last week in support of the bill. "Your address is listed (on the Statehouse Web site and in the manual). Your picture is listed. It's got your wife's name. It's got your children's names. It's got your business and home number."

However, fearing the bill wouldn't pass the House, its sponsor -- Rep. Keith Kelly, R-Spartanburg -- agreed to a weaker version of the bill.

In coming weeks, the House will consider the revised bill. It would allow lawmakers -- and anyone else -- to keep a firearm in their vehicle while parked at the Statehouse.

"I am disappointed that the bill had to be altered. I don't see (carrying a firearm into public places) as a special privilege," Kelly said. "But this seemed like the only way to get something through."

Rep. Michael Pitts, R-Laurens, a retired Greenville law-enforcement officer who has a concealed-weapons permit and teaches classes needed to earn a permit, said Kelly's original bill makes a valid point.

"I get more threats now than I did in my former position," Pitts said. "It makes sense for lawmakers to have a weapon on them."

Lawmakers also are considering a second concealed-weapons bill. It would keep secret from the public the list of 61,000 South Carolinians who are permitted to carry concealed weapons.

Unnecessary?

Even though Kelly's bill has been altered, opponents plan to fight it, saying allowing firearms in the Statehouse parking areas goes too far.

"We've got security (on the Statehouse grounds) already," said Rep. John Scott, D-Richland. "I see this as unnecessary."

Last year, during his re-election campaign, Scott said he received threats from a hate group.

While SLED recommended he get a concealed-weapons permit and carry a firearm, Scott refused.

"If you've got a weapon on you, you won't go the extra mile to get out of harm's way, to walk away from a confrontation," Scott said. "You accept a lot less when you have a gun."

Doug Pennington of the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said Kelly's bill could make the Statehouse less safe, not safer.

"This creates a gun-accident and gun-theft risk," he said. "Right now, there isn't one."

Pennington said passing the proposal also could cause psychological stress.

"I doubt people who work at the state Capitol will feel safer knowing that there are any number of weapons out in the parking lot."

'You just don't know ...'

However, national research shows carrying a concealed weapon does not decrease the likelihood of an attack or victimization, said Gary Kleck, a Florida State University professor who has researched gun-related issues for more than 30 years.

"But the research does solidly support that when you bring out the gun (during an attack), it reduces the likelihood that you will be injured or lose property," Kleck said.

Research also shows most permit holders never fire their guns at anyone. "The most common way people use guns is they threaten people with them," Kleck said. "They don't shoot them."

Statewide, the number of people with concealed-weapons permits has increased.

Nearly 6,000 people were given a permit in 1998-1999, according to SLED data. Last year, nearly 18,000 permits were issued.

Overall, about 61,000 South Carolinians now are packing heat legally, according to SLED.

Rep. Laurie Funderburk, D-Kershaw, one of two female lawmakers with a permit, said carrying her gun with her gives her a sense of comfort.

"Luckily, I've never been threatened and never been assaulted ... except by him," Funderburk said as her 1-year-old son tapped a toy truck against her cheek.

"I'd probably have one even if I was a regular citizen," she said. "You just don't know what could happen."

A permit can be revoked if its holder is convicted of certain crimes, ranging from passing a bad check to criminal domestic violence.

In South Carolina, 369 people -- or less than 1 percent of permit holders -- have had their permits revoked since 1996.

Other uses

Some lawmakers who have permits, including Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland, say they have no plans to carry their guns to work at the Legislature.

Bales said he prefers to carry one around the pastures of his Lower Richland farm, killing water moccasins, rattlesnakes and copperheads.

"If they bite a horse or a calf, it'll kill them," he said. "That's all I need a gun for."

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