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Will South Carolina special session include constitutional carry?

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After passing out of the South Carolina House by wide margins back in February, a constitutional carry bill has made little progress in the state Senate. A Senate subcommittee gave its approval last month, and earlier this week the Senate Judiciary Committee gave it a favorable report and sent the SB 109 to the Senate floor by a 12-11 vote, but the Senate failed to bring up the bill for a vote before the legislature adjourned its regular session on Thursday.

It looks like lawmakers are coming back for a special session, however, and constitutional carry could be on the table.

For the past 20 years, lawmakers have passed what’s called a sine die resolution, ending the regular session at its mandated day and time with a set of issues they can return and take up later as they wish. It was abortion in 2022 and redistricting in 2021 along with the perpetual items like the state budget or governor’s vetoes.

This year, the Senate and House couldn’t agree on that resolution, so it will be up to the governor to call the General Assembly back in a special session with no limits on what is discussed. Less than five minutes after both chambers adjourned Thursday, Gov. Henry McMaster announced a Friday news conference to call lawmakers back.

It’s a lot of power for lawmakers to give up to the governor and hasn’t happened since 2002 because the Republican-dominated Legislature didn’t fully trust the Republican governors before McMaster.

In theory, anything can be dealt with during the special session. But in 2023, only a few outstanding issues are likely to come up as it’s the first year of the two-year sessions and bills stay alive wherever they are in the legislative process until the 2024 session begins

Will constitutional carry be one of those “outstanding issues”? Maybe, but if so gun owners and Second Amendment advocates are going to have to continue to push the Senate to move forward. One of the priorities for McMaster is increasing the sentences for those found in illegal possession of a firearm, and the Senate Judiciary has tacked that measure on to two different pieces of legislation; one a bill creating a criminal offense for trafficking in fentanyl, with the other the Senate version of constitutional carry.

The enhanced gun penalties are one of the measures McMaster wants to see completed before the Legislature goes home for the year, but he doesn’t have a preference on which bill they use to pass them.

“Whether it’s on the fentanyl bill or constitutional carry, both are excellent bills I think, and I’ll sign them,” he said.

But the choice isn’t so easy in the Legislature.

Law enforcement members strongly support the enhanced penalties for illegal firearm possession but strongly oppose permitless, or “constitutional” carry, seeing the latter as a threat to officers and the public.

On the other hand, gun rights activists, who have substantial sway in the Republican-dominated Legislature, have been demanding permitless carry for years but are wary of the enhanced penalties for illegal firearm possession because it would also make it illegal for felons to have firearms under state law.

Thus, the Legislature’s majority has been torn. To get out of the bind, the House in late February passed a bill that had both permitless carry and the new firearm penalties in it to give something to each side.

But that compromise has gotten a cold reception in the Senate, which has historically opposed permitless carry.

Instead, senators on the Judiciary Committee attached the new gun penalties to the fentanyl trafficking bill that the House passed by a wide margin in February.

Seven Republicans on the committee opposed the combined bill, many because they preferred taking the House’s route of linking the gun penalties to permitless carry.

Sen. Wes Climer, R-Rock Hill, then proposed a bill to do so, arguing that permitless carry is a Second Amendment right.

“I’ve never been comfortable with the government requiring a permission slip on the way to exercising that right,” he said.

While Climer’s proposal did win approval by the Judiciary Committee, three Republicans joined every Democrat in voting against the bill. That’s a sign that constitutional carry is still facing some challenges in the chamber, and I’m guessing that the fentanyl trafficking bill will end up being the chosen vehicle for McMaster’s increased penalties for illegal firearm possession.

I don’t see any reason why lawmakers couldn’t advance both bills other than to spare those squishy senators who don’t want to go on the record as voting against constitutional carry but are reluctant to support it either. South Carolina Second Amendment supporters are closer than they’ve ever been to getting constitutional carry across the finish line, but if the legislation doesn’t get to McMaster’s desk this year it will be because a handful of Republicans put up roadblocks on the path to increased freedoms and strengthened individual rights.

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