South Carolina Republicans at war over ‘constitutional carry’ bill

An NRA-backed constitutional carry bill that would allow most South Carolinians to carry firearms in public is facing an uncertain future after several hard-line gun rights groups mounted a public pressure campaign to kill the legislation over claims it had been too watered down. 

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

Gov. Henry McMaster (R-SC) gives his State of the State address on Jan. 24, 2024, in Columbia, South Carolina. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

South Carolina’s “constitution carry” bill had failed to gain momentum in the state Senate despite making its way out of the House in the past. This year, the Senate tacked on a number of amendments to the bill that included heightened penalties for illegal gun possession, which was a request made by Gov. Henry McMaster (R-SC).

Other changes exempted state lawmakers on where they could carry firearms, allowed businesses to post signs prohibiting concealed weapons on their premises, and created tougher penalties for people who declined to participate in optional safety training and were caught carrying in places they weren’t allowed to, such as schools and hospitals.

The 28-15 Senate vote came after days of deliberation and lengthy late-night sessions and was expected to move quickly through the House and land on the governor’s desk for his signature. 

“Stricter increased penalties for repeat illegal gun use and possession will keep these criminals behind bars instead of shooting up our streets with impunity,” McMaster said in a statement. “It was a collaborative and cooperative effort by the Senate. My hope is that the House will concur with their improvements and send it to my desk immediately so we can begin saving lives.”

That didn’t happen. 

State Sen. Brad Hutto (left) asks questions to Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey (right) during a debate over gun laws on Feb. 1, 2024, in Columbia, South Carolina. (AP)

Instead of an easy slam dunk, the legislation has turned into a showdown between House and Senate Republicans, and it could be scrapped altogether this session if both chambers continue to disagree. Republicans control both houses of the state legislature as well as the governor’s mansion, and they may not have an opportunity to pass permitless carry again in the near future. 

“If this dies, it could be another year to four years before we see this opportunity again,” House sponsor Rep. Bobby Cox (R-SC) said. “And South Carolina would be far behind.”  

Following the Senate’s passage of the bill earlier this month, conservative gun rights groups carried out a multipronged public pressure campaign against every single House GOP member. Lawmakers were bombarded with dozens of text messages from constituents and political action groups demanding they vote against the Senate version of the bill, The Post and Courier reported.  

One text from the American Action Fund, the activist arm of the conservative group Young Americans for Liberty, singled out Senate Republicans who had voted for the bill as RINOs (short for “Republicans in name only”) and said they had “betrayed” the state’s gun owners. It even made door hangers for the senators’ offices in the statehouse that described them as “Second Amendment sellouts.”

Other anonymous texts were sent to voters that claimed the House Republicans considering the Senate bill were “wavering” on legislation to support a “massive expansion of our 2nd Amendment rights,” according to images and texts shared with the newspaper.

Gun rights groups voiced that they were tired of “backroom deals” that allowed the legislation to be diluted. 

“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,” Dimsdale said.

State Rep. R.J. May agreed. “It’s not constitutional carry,” May told WLTX. “It’s con carry. It’s a compromised version of constitutional carry and one that for anybody who ran on protecting gun rights should easily be able to reject.”

The House rejected the Senate’s amended version of the bill. The move drew warnings from Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, who cautioned that the Senate would not approve a House version of the bill without the proposed Senate amendments. 

“They’ve seen we had a long, hard battle over this,” he said. “It took us awhile to get us where we are.”

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McMaster also voiced his criticism over the House GOP’s decision to reject the Senate’s version. 

“For over two years, law enforcement and victims of crime have been begging this General Assembly to pass a bill with stricter increased penalties for illegal gun use and possession,” McMaster wrote on social media. “The public is losing confidence. So am I.”

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