COLUMBIA --- A House panel today will take up a bill that would allow anyone who can legally own a firearm in the state to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.
The move to loosen gun laws comes in the wake of the Jan. 8 Arizona shootings that killed six and left U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords recovering from a gunshot wound to the head, in addition to a Dec. 14 incident in Florida in which an armed man threatened school board members before he was fatally shot by security.
Rather than seeking to tighten gun restrictions, as some Democrats have urged President Obama to do on the federal level, South Carolina lawmakers are looking at how to make it easier to carry weapons for protection.
A House panel last month rejected efforts to give public officials more freedom to carry guns to protect themselves because gun-rights advocates said they shouldn't be singled out for special treatment. Instead, that House panel now will consider doing away with the permit requirements for carrying concealed weapons. The measure has 36 of the House's 123 members signed on as supporters and a few vocal opponents.
"People have a constitutional right by the Second Amendment to keep and bear -- not just keep, but bear -- arms for self protection," said state Rep. Mike Pitts, a Republican and retired Greenville police officer who introduced the bill Jan. 12. Pitts said that U.S. Supreme Court decisions have affirmed rights to carry guns for personal protection.
It's actually a trip to the Wild West, said opponent and state Rep. Joe Neal, a Hopkins Democrat.
"We have descended into the depths of madness," he said.
The legislation also would give concealed-weapons holders a break. For instance, they now can't go to a place that serves alcohol even if they're just eating a meal.
Pitts still wants to keep guns out of bars, but says they should be allowed in restaurants that serve alcohol, unless the business prohibits concealed weapons.
Concealed weapons permits would still be needed for people who travel to 17 states that recognize South Carolina's gun permits, including Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Pitts said the looser gun law is needed because "the world is becoming a more and more dangerous place and law enforcement can't be everywhere."
Neal, however, said that the change would lead fewer people to get concealed weapons permits and go through the safety and background checks that go with them.