Walk into Hootie's Outdoors on Highway 1, and you'll notice that half the shelves in the gun case are empty.
Owner Link Atkinson said business is “the best it's ever been” in his store, which has been open since 1995. Many people are buying guns amid discussions on state and national levels over whether or not the country needs more gun laws or just more guns, Atkinson said.
“It's the thought of something being taken away that's been our freedom for years and years,” he said. “Look at my cabinet – I don't have hardly any guns. All those cabinets were full of guns.”
Much of the discussion was prompted by December's shooting in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The massacre followed closely behind other mass shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin.
Some lawmakers are proposing legislation that would limit the rights of gun owners, while others are trying to expand those rights. In South Carolina, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee is debating Senate Bill 115, or “the Constitutional Carry Act of 2013.”
The bill would repeal a state law requiring residents to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon and would allow gun owners to carry their firearms openly.
Currently, it is illegal to carry a weapon openly in South Carolina, and any resident wanting a concealed carry permit must take an eight-hour course, submit to a background check by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division, submit fingerprints and pay a fee.
The Constitutional Carry Act, if passed, would eliminate the need for a concealed carry permit. Atkinson does not support the bill.
“Not without some kind of qualifications or some kind of training,” he said. “A person needs to know about their gun. They need to know about what they can do with the gun and what they can't do with it.”
Chris Medlin, who teaches a concealed carry course, said he's opposed to the bill, also.
“Even if I wasn't in the business of training people, I still would oppose it,” he said.
Medlin believes it's important for gun carriers to become educated about the firearm, how to use it and when they can – and can't – use it. The bill also creates a tremendous risk for “impulse use.”
“'I'm mad this guy cut me off – boom.” he said, as an example. “Those things happen in some places in the country, but it's available for that split-second, spur of the moment decision.
“There is a lot of potential for really bad decisions that are tragic.”
Medlin said he's against the idea of carrying openly.
“If I'm one of the psychos that comes in to rob a place and that's gonna hurt somebody, and I see one man standing there with a gun, he gets shot first, because I know he's a threat because I can see the gun on his hip,” he said. “Or, I can be standing behind him and snatch that gun out of his holster.”
The bill would also have implications for law enforcement officers verifying that someone is carrying a gun lawfully. Currently, if an officer sees “that bulge, that gun printing” under a person's jacket or shirt, they can ask to see a concealed carry permit, Medlin said. That wouldn't be so under the proposal.
“Little Johnny Thug can walk down the street with a gun on his hip and law enforcement has no authority to stop him and question him and find out if he can lawfully have that gun,” he said. “If this law were passed, police would have no authority to stop them and question: Is that gun stolen? Are you a felon? Can you lawfully have that gun?
“That's an aspect of it people don't think about,” he said.
The bill would change the offense of “unlawfully carrying a handgun” to “carrying a handgun with intent to commit a crime.”
Under the bill, business owners would still be able to post signs prohibiting weapons in their establishments. Additionally, it would be illegal to carry a weapon into a person's home without their permission.
State Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he is “not comfortable with the bill, as it's written now.”
“I understand people's frustrations with the concealed carry permit process,” he said. “If you eliminate the permit, you also eliminate the ability to do a background check. I'm not comfortable sanctioning the carrying of a weapon by violent people or those who are mentally ill.”
Background checks are conducted by gun dealers and sellers on any person purchasing a gun – if you purchase it legally, Massey noted.
“I think we ought to trust the decent, law-abiding folks and we ought to expand the rights of concealed weapon permit holders. We ought to allow them to carry in more places,” Massey said. “Those people who have the permits, those are the good guys. They've undergone the background checks; they've submitted fingerprints; they've taken the training class. Those people, we have no problems with.”
“Getting rid of the permits and just allowing anybody and everybody is dangerous, and I'm just not comfortable going there,” he said.
Massey also agreed with Medlin's concern about law enforcement verifying lawful carriers.
“Law enforcement won't be able to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys,” he said. “If somebody is a violent criminal, if there's no way for law enforcement to do that check ahead of time, I don't want those people carrying.”
South Carolina has a reciprocity agreement with 17 other states that allow concealed weapons, meaning residents of those states can carry in South Carolina, and vice versa, as long as they abide by the state's laws. Massey said Senate Bill 115, if passed, could jeopardize that.
The subcommittee is still conducting public hearings on the bill, and Massey said they could take action within the next three weeks.
“I suspect it'll get out of the subcommittee,” he said. “I think we'll have a lively debate before the full committee on it, but if it gets out of committee, it's going to have a very difficult time on the senate floor.”