How far right movement got SC House Republicans to reverse course on constitutional carry

Gun Rights

COLUMBIA — A Statehouse effort backed by the National Rifle Association to allow open carry of handguns in South Carolina — with only limited requirements — is on the verge of falling apart after House Republicans faced a public pressure campaign from several obscure hardline gun organizations to reject the bill.

House Bill 3594 — a measure allowing an adult of any age to carry a handgun without a permit — passed the Senate by a nearly two-to-one margin after five days of debate, leaving just one procedural vote in the House before landing on Gov. Henry McMaster’s desk.

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For years, so-called “constitutional carry” legislation had failed to gain momentum in the Senate despite passing in the House. But Senate leadership made a number of changes to the bill this year to help it pass on their side of the building.

“Constitutional carry,” by definition, means the legal carrying of a handgun, either openly or concealed, in public without a license or permit. The House passed a straightforward version of the bill with one exception — enhanced criminal penalties for people who are caught illegally in possession of a firearm — in the hope of swaying the Senate.

The House version still wasn’t enough, and the Senate implemented several changes of its own to the bill ranging from exempting state lawmakers on where they could carry firearms to harsher criminal penalties for people who declined to participate in optional safety trainings who were found carrying in places they weren’t allowed to, like hospitals or public schools.

The changes were enough to get the bill across the finish line in the Senate. But many of the Senate’s changes rankled gun owners, prompting a deluge of opposition from groups to the ideological right of the National Rifle Association, which supports the bill.

After the Senate voted to pass the legislation, every Republican House lawmaker was bombarded with text messages — some, dozens — from a mix of constituents and political action groups urging them to vote against the Senate version of the bill.

One automated text from the American Action Fund, the activist arm of Texas-based conservative group Young Americans for Liberty, described Senate Republicans as “Republicans in Name Only” who had “betrayed” South Carolina gun owners with the changes to their bill.

The group even produced door hangers for their senators’ Statehouse offices in the leadup to the vote describing members as “Second Amendment sellouts.”

“We are tired of the compromises,” Tommy Dimsdale, a lobbyist for the hardline Palmetto Gun Rights, said in a Feb. 6 video opposing the Senate version of the bill.

“We are tired of waiting, we are tired of backroom deals, and we are tired of South Carolina Republicans circling the wagons around their colleagues weakening good bills so that weaker members get to vote on them and pretend that they are pro-gun,” he added. 

The NRA tried to salvage the deal. In an action alert to its members Feb. 6, they said any decision other than concurrence would likely kill the bill, and urged members to call their representatives to support a deal.

Members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, which opposed the Senate bill, shared anonymous text messages sent to their constituents claiming they were “wavering” on legislation to support a “massive expansion of our 2nd Amendment rights,” according to images shared with The Post and Courier.

Anticipating resistance from groups like the House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Jay Kilmartin, R-Columbia, and Freedom Caucus member R.J. May, R-Lexington, told The Post and Courier that a lobbyist from the NRA met with them to say they would negatively rate any legislation that defied the Senate compromise.

Kilmartin was incensed and threatened he would renounce his NRA membership on the House floor. 

“I was so flippin’ mad that the NRA was ganging up on us and trying to coax us into concurring, threatening to grade us unfavorably,” said Kilmartin. “I have been a lifelong member for years now. I’ve been to their annual convention. So I’m pretty dug in that what they did was unacceptable.”

The full Republican caucus was equally undecided on which way to go, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bobby Cox, R-Greer.

Some members of the caucus were wary of the Senate amendments. But so close to the finish line, many were concerned they might not have an opportunity to pass permitless carry again.

Ultimately by Feb. 8, the decision had been made: the Senate bill was a no-go, largely because of the pressure campaign. 

“We were leaning towards concurring because that’s the sure bet,” said Cox. “But we heard from hundreds of constituents about their concerns with the bill, and some of the amendments attached to it. Instead of adjusting the Senate’s version, we’re going to pass our bill that we’ve passed before, and then we can hash everything out in conference hopefully.”

The bill will now face negotiations between members of the House and Senate. If a compromise is not reached, the bill is dead.

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