Column: Having guns in bars can be unstable mix

  • Posted: Sunday, February 2, 2014 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Sunday, February 2, 2014 11:52 a.m.

You're in a bar in the early morning hours, and there's a guy across the room who's drinking heavily, who keeps glaring at you. It's more than a little unsettling, because you know South Carolina now allows concealed-weapons-permit holders to carry guns into bars. You also know that the legislature watered down the training requirements when it passed the guns-in-bars provision. And you know that South Carolina has an extremely liberal stand-your-ground law, which allows you to use lethal force if you feel threatened.

So when the drunk across the room suddenly reaches inside his jacket, you pull your own pistol and shoot. Only you're not the best aim, so you hit his companion. And it turns out that he was reaching for his ringing cell phone.

That scenario was described to me a year ago by a Republican senator who was troubled by the obsession of some of his colleagues with lifting the state's restriction on carrying concealed weapons into establishments that sell alcohol. Clearly, his scenario won't play out every day once the guns-in-bars legislation becomes law. It won't happen every month, and probably not every year. But it's not much of a stretch to imagine it could happen once or twice.

Call it collateral damage in the gun lobby's continuing quest to demonstrate that it can have its way with our legislature, no matter how misguided its way may be. Certainly the legislature's decision to pass this legislation (S.308), despite the obvious problems, has something to do with the fear legislators have of the gun lobby. But I suspect it has more to do with the way mainstream senators, like the one who drew the stand-your-ground illustration, and then voted for the bill, have allowed the no-compromise caucus to hold them hostage. And I'm sure we'll be exploring that more as the session continues.

For now, let's just talk about guns in bars.

The most obvious thing to be said about the legislation is that what we've been sold is very different than what we bought. We were told that the goal was simply to allow people to go to dinner somewhere other than McDonald's without having to leave their gun in their car.

I'm sure there are people who wanted nothing more than that – although that begs the question of why in the world anyone would choose, voluntarily, to go anywhere that they thought they needed a gun.

But those people were not the driving force behind this legislation. If they had been, then the bill would simply allow people to carry their guns into restaurants – not in stand-alone bars.

Yes, we were told that it was just too much work to lift the restriction on restaurants but keep it in place on bars. I never bought that claim, but some senators came up with a creative end run around that problem: Allow guns in alcohol-serving establishments until midnight but not afterward. Because, let's be honest: You're not out in a bar eating dinner after midnight. But the House was horrified at that restriction and removed it, and after a few days of debate, the Senate backed down and accepted the House's no-restrictions-on-bars proposal, and last week the House quickly agreed to minor changes the Senate made. This clearly demonstrates that dinner was never the point. The point was chipping away further at the very sensible restrictions our state has.

Like the training course people have to pass before they can get a concealed-weapons permit.

Under current law, most applicants must pass an eight-hour course that covers state law on the use of deadly force, handgun safety and storage practices, and fire a gun in the presence of the instructor.

The guns-in-bars legislation allows some people to skip all of the training except the part about S.C. law, and most of those exceptions make sense – retired police officers, for example. I'm less sure it makes sense to exempt people just because they served in the military, but that's not the part that's bothersome.

The bothersome part is eliminating the eight-hour training requirement, which one concealed-weapons trainer told me would lead to training mills, operated by people who will cut their courses down to the bare minimum in order to attract students who don't want to sit through the full course. If that happens – and we know it will, because there are always people who want to take short cuts, and there are always people who are happy to make a buck off of accommodating them – we no longer will have reason to believe that people with permits actually know how to shoot a gun, much less anything about how to handle it safely. Or when they can and can't shoot. Legally.

Although it would be great if Gov. Nikki Haley would veto the bill, I'm not holding my breath. About all we can do now is hope that all those folks carrying their guns into bars obey the law that prohibits their drinking in said bars – that is, assuming they even heard about that part of the law in their 15-minute training course. And hope that the ones who were demanding that they be allowed to have a few drinks while they're packing won't be able to convince our legislature to allow that. At least not for a couple more years.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an associate editor with The State newspaper in Columbia.

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