10 Key Players in the Debate Over Gun Reform- The Guns are Loaded

gun violence


Mehagan Alexander of Gun Sense S.C., state Sen. Lee Bright, state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, Gov. Nikki Haley, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, state Sen. Gerald Malloy, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, state Rep. Mike Pitts, state Rep. Todd Rutherford and Gerald Stoudemire of Gun Owners of South Carolina.


The wake of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church, dozen of bills have been introduced to both restrict and expand laws related to buying and carrying firearms in South Carolina. It’s a topic sure to invite passionate debate between those seeking reforms to curb gun violence and others who worry about eroding Second Amendment rights. Here are some influential advocates who are sure to play prominent roles in that debate as the legislative session unfolds.

Gov. Haley says existing gun regulations are sufficient



Gov. Nikki Haley attended all of the funerals for the nine worshippers killed in the Charleston Emanuel AME Church shooting last summer.

But going forward, she has said nothing about the need for new gun laws in South Carolina.

“The gun wasn’t to blame at the end of the day, it was the hate,” Haley said of the tragedy. “Let’s dig deeper. The easy part is to throw it after the gun. The harder part is to go to the heart of why people did it in the first place.”

Haley, in the middle of her second term as governor, drew national attention last summer when she spearheaded the push to remove the Condeferate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds in the wake of the church massacre. But so far, she not been a vocal presence in the gun debate.

For Haley, existing gun regulations are sufficient, if they’re followed.

“How do you go through nine funerals and sit there and find out the FBI didn’t do their job?” Haley said. “There’s no new law we need for that. They should’ve just done their job.”

By executive order earlier this month, President Barack Obama called for $500 million toward mental health and to add 230 more background check personnel, among other gun-related initiatives.

Haley, a Republican supporter of increased mental health investments, said Obama’s actions — which include tighter reporting rules, stricter enforcement of laws to limit the gun show “loophole” and more background checks — won’t do much.

“In all of the mass shootings we’ve seen, as devastating as they are, the change the president has proposed will not fix any of that,” Haley said. “All you’re doing is hurting the legal gun owners that are always trying to do the right thing.”

Haley’s enthusiasm for guns as a gun range hobbyist is well-known.

For Christmas in 2013 she posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram a picture of the Beretta PX4 Storm she got as a present from her husband, Michael. She also has a concealed weapons permit.

Charleston police chief supports tougher penalties for repeat gun-law offenders



It almost seems as if South Carolina’s lawmakers have made more efforts to crack down on shoplifters than felons carrying guns.

At least that’s the way it looks to Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, who for years has been trying to get the law changed on how felons with guns are punished.

The penalties get harsher each time a person is convicted of shoplifting. Same thing for driving under suspension or driving under the influence.

But the penalty for a felon carrying a weapon is the same no matter how many times it happens.

“There is more serious punishment for those who steal minor property items than for somebody who is out there illegally possessing and carrying a handgun unlawfully,” Mullen said. “We don’t think that’s correct.”

Mullen oversees South Carolina’s largest police department, with 447 officers under his command. He’s a data-driven guy, and he knows that firearms have played an outsized role in the homicides that have occurred in his community. All but five of the 33 killings over the past three years have involved guns.

Mullen’s city also was home to the worst mass shooting in South Carolina’s modern history: the massacre of nine worshippers at Emanuel AME Church.

Mullen has described gun violence in the U.S. as a “crisis” that drains taxpayer money for health care, social services, judicial and law enforcement costs. He has been urging support for bills in the state Legislature that would increase penalties for repeat violations of gun laws.

Mullen also backs proposed laws that would require background checks for firearm purchases through gun shows or private sales. Current state law requires checks only when buying from a licensed dealer.

“I don’t look at this from a gun control perspective,” Mullen said. “I look at it as a violence prevention perspective. All we’re trying to do is determine that those who are buying a gun are in fact eligible under federal and state law to possess it. I don’t think that inhibits anybody’s Second Amendment rights.”

Sen. Bright vows to protect 2nd Amendment rights



COLUMBIA — State Sen. Lee Bright, who famously raffled off an AR-15 military-style rifle in his failed 2014 U.S. Senate campaign, is threatening to block any bill in the state Legislature this year that would restrict gun access rights.

The Republican from Roebuck is an outspoken advocate of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms.

He knows gun control advocates hope the June 17 killing of nine worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church will shift momentum toward enacting stronger gun restrictions.

Bright also contends that too many state legislators, particularly Democrats, have sided with President Obama on the need for greater gun control.

Bright, who runs an insurance agency, is a believer in virtually no restrictions on guns. For years he’s pushed for a constitutional carry bill — which allows for the carrying of concealed weapons without a permit — and he plans to shepherd a House bill that would do just that during this legislative session.

Bright worries that more government-mandated restrictions might slow or stop a person whose life is threatened from getting a potentially life-saving firearm. He also wants access to guns to be increased, not reduced, so citizens can protect themselves from potential criminals crossing the Southern border.

Bright’s vow to block any bill to restrict gun access that advances in the Senate is no empty threat. Under Senate rules, each senator can kill almost any bill through a procedural maneuver that makes it virtually impossible to move a contested piece of legislation forward.

“It’s going to come down to the Senate,” Bright said of the impending gun battle. “If I’m attacked for protecting the Second Amendment, then that’s a burden I’m willing to bear.”

Longtime gun control advocate Rep. Gilliard vows to renew push for legislation



COLUMBIA — Rep. Wendell Gilliard is tired of attending funerals for those lost to gun violence. He’s also tired of fighting for reforms to stem the bloodshed, only to walk away empty-handed at the close of each legislative session.

“Now is the time to either put up or shut up,” the Charleston Democrat said earlier this month. “That is just the bottom line. Don’t wait until the next tragedy.”

Gilliard has pushed anti-violence measures and social justice reforms for much of his adult life. A former chemical plant worker and union leader, he won a bid to Charleston’s City Council in 1997.

He saw the toll from gun violence in his district and even found himself in the line of fire on one occasion when two men randomly started shooting from a vehicle on a West Ashley street in 2002. He was not injured but was stunned by the brazenness of the gunmen.

Gilliard, first elected to the House in 2008, has long been a vocal advocate for gun control measures, saying “Anyone who talks about gun reform is a friend of mine.” He insists that he doesn’t want to infringe on the Second Amendment rights of the state’s residents but contends there’s an increasing need for what he describes as common-sense reforms.

Gilliard introduced several gun control bills for the 2015 legislative session, including one to ban the sale of green-tip ammunition that can pierce the bullet-proof vests of law enforcement officers.

But many of his bills weren’t given a second thought until tragedy struck at Emanuel AME Church in June. With the mass shooting still fresh in people’s minds, Gilliard intends to lobby hard for his bills to be taken up in committee for discussion this session.

“These are not knee-jerk bills,” Gilliard said. “Why do we always have to wait until tragedy knocks on doors?”

Stoudemire: Proposed bills won’t have ‘any effect’ on crimes, mass shootings



COLUMBIA — The leading voice tied to the National Rifle Association in South Carolina has a lot of friends in the Legislature. In fact, he helped teach many of them how to shoot.

Gerald Stoudemire, president of Gun Owners of South Carolina, said he’s helped dozens of lawmakers qualify for their conceal weapon permits — Gov. Nikki Haley included.

Haley was a member of the House of Representatives at the time, honing her gun skills long before making it to the Governor’s Mansion, Stoudemire said.

Even some of the lawmakers perceived as anti-gun have been taught by him.

Stoudemire owns Little Mountain Gun and Supply store with his wife and teaches concealed weapons classes. As Stoudemire sees it, the proposed bills that restrict law-abiding citizens’ access to guns will do nothing to curb gun violence. He predicts that no reform bills will see the light of day.

“I do not believe anything that’s been filed (in South Carolina) will have any effect on our crimes or mass shootings,” he said.

His group, which numbers between 900 and 1,000 members, is the state affiliate of the NRA in South Carolina, its website states. They also promote hunting, education and sporting competition efforts.

Stoudemire maintains that local and federal authorities need to improve enforcement of existing laws, not add new restrictive ones.

“There are so many federal laws dealing with firearms that you couldn’t read them in a week,” he said. “The thing is, they’re selectively enforced. We don’t need changes. What we need is enforcement of what we have. At every level.”

Sen. Kimpson’s district includes two highest-profile gun killings



COLUMBIA — State Sen. Marlon Kimpson’s district was the epicenter of South Carolina’s two highest-profile gun killings last year, both of which drew enormous national attention.

His turf includes the Emanuel AME Church as well as the grassy lot where an unarmed black motorist, Walter Scott, died after being shot in the back multiple times by a white North Charleston police officer.

But it’s also personal for the Charleston Democrat. Kimpson served with the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a fellow Democratic state senator who was killed along with eight others in his Bible study at Emanuel AME.

After the killings, Kimpson helped hammer out a method to disperse millions of dollars donated to the city of Charleston’s Hope Fund for the shooting victims’ families and survivors.

Legal skill backs his avowed push for gun control measures in the Statehouse this year. At Charleston’s Motley Rice law firm, he handles cases ranging from complex securities fraud to the personal traumas of people killed or maimed in catastrophic events.

On the Senate floor, he once noted that a gun kills someone in South Carolina every 14 hours. “These are statistics that alarm me,” he declared.

So far, Kimpson has filed three of a planned package of five bills aimed at stemming gun carnage. One would ban military-style guns. Another would require residents to register their guns. A third would close the so-called “Charleston loophole,” which let accused Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof purchase a gun when he shouldn’t have been able to pass a background check.

The moment is ripe for gun reform, Kimpson deemed, calling it of “paramount importance to South Carolina.”

Gun Sense SC’s Alexander building support to tighten purchasing rules



During the winter of 2012, Meghan Alexander learned that a college classmate’s child had died at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, one of 20 children gunned down in that most innocent of places.

In summer 2015, Alexander learned that nine people died in a barrage of gunfire at Emanuel AME Church, another of those most innocent places, but this one in her hometown. Using her background in marketing and public relations, it took Alexander less than two weeks to convene the first meeting of a new independent group, Gun Sense SC.

Since its first meeting on July 1, the Charleston-based group has ballooned to 500 members with plans to launch groups in Columbia and Myrtle Beach.

Its members include gun owners, and two veterans sit on the nonprofit’s board. Another teaches gun safety.

Alexander is quick to note that she grew up in a gun-owning family and that Second Amendment rights must be preserved.

Gun Sense SC is building grassroots support to reduce gun violence by tightening rules on who can purchase firearms.

After all, if the “Charleston loophole” didn’t exist, Dylann Roof wouldn’t have been able to buy a gun, and Gun Sense SC wouldn’t be around, she said. Roof should not have been able to purchase the semi-automatic pistol reportedly used in the killings because he had admitted possessing illegal drugs.

Alexander is working to keep discussions about background checks away from the shrill center stage of partisan politics to a quieter, more meaningful conversation among people of both political parties.

“Talking about guns is hard, but once we break the ice,” she said, “people are willing to discuss it.”

S.C. House Democratic leader concerned over giving government more control



COLUMBIA — Blindly trusting government is not what House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford or many of his colleagues do.

That’s why he’s not in favor of giving the government more control over how long someone has to wait to gain access to a gun until he’s clear about what is causing the delays. Numerous bills have been filed in the Legislature that would set mandatory waiting periods for a firearm before it can be sold or exchanged.

Rutherford is a former prosecutor who now works as a criminal defense lawyer in Columbia.

First elected in 1998, he’s earned a reputation through eight terms in office as a leading voice among House Democrats. He’s passionate about issues, including criminal justice reform, and he’s demonstrated a willingness to follow his own compass rather than strictly adhere to the party line.

Rutherford worries about potential consequences that could come with waiting periods and other reforms. He said it’s possible that a woman being stalked could be injured or killed because she could not obtain a gun fast enough to protect herself. He said it’s also possible that a government office might discriminate against minorities, routinely delaying background checks to delay gun purchases.

Rutherford said he supports preventing criminals and deranged people from getting firearms and would support closing loopholes that allow them to do so.

But the advancement of gun legislation won’t be the Democratic Caucus’ sole focus during the 2016 session, he said.

And he would not support any bill that requires citizens to register their guns with law enforcement.

Rep. Pitts wants current gun laws enforced before reforms are made



COLUMBIA — Rep. Mike Pitts speaks proudly of his “mountain folk” ancestors who grabbed their squirrel rifles to defend the South in the Civil War. The lifelong hunter and retired Greenville police officer sees an honored tradition of gun ownership in this state, and he’s made it clear he will fight to keep it that way.

He also has the resume to back it up. The staunch Second Amendment advocate is entering his 14th year in the Legislature. He’s a lifetime member of the NRA and has earned an A-plus lifetime rating from the organization’s political victory fund, according to Project Vote Smart. “The problem is gun owners do not trust the agenda of the anti-gun side,” Pitts said. “They do not trust the government, and for very valid reasons.”

Outside of his Statehouse duties, Pitts is a past president of the National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses and a member of North American Hunting Club and the Gun Owners of South Carolina. In 2008, he traveled to Peru to help convince leaders there to reopen sport hunting in the country after a 40-year ban.

Pitts maintains that the media is biased against gun owners. He recently introduced a bill to register practicing journalists much in the same way others want to register gun owners.

The Laurens Republican contends that better enforcement of existing laws is needed, not new restrictions on gun ownership. The biggest issue is that the federal government is too understaffed to handle background checks for gun purchases, he said.

He’s also lost track of how many guns he owns, but insists he might be able to support some common sense reforms.

Sen. Malloy’s bill would extend FBI background checks to 28 days



On June 17, state Sen. Gerald Malloy lost close friend and fellow senator, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, to an avowed racist wielding a .45-caliber handgun he should not have been allowed to buy.

Since then, he has served as attorney, friend and confidante to Pinckney’s wife, Jennifer, who hid in another room with their 5-year-old daughter as bullets sprayed over Emanuel AME Church’s fellowship hall, killing nine.

“It’s unfortunate that we continue to hear and read horrific stories of people being hunted down like wild game,” Malloy said. “Something needs to stop.”

Accused killer Dylann Roof shouldn’t have been able to pass a background check to buy the gun reportedly used in the Emanuel AME shooting. However, an error held up his check for longer than the three-day wait, so the gun was sold to him.

Malloy, a Democrat from Hartsville who sits on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, has introduced a bill that could have prevented the purchase of the gun reportedly used in the massacre. His offering increases the FBI’s time to run background checks from the current three days to up to 28 days.

Spartanburg Republican Rep. Doug Brannon is sponsoring similar legislation in the House.

Malloy concedes it will be tough to get the bill through a Legislature that places enormous value on gun rights. But he remains confident and determined.

“The way it could pass is if the public demands it,” Malloy said. “There are people who are losing their lives every day. We’re not going to stop them all, but we can curb it.”

Since the shooting, Malloy has traveled with Jennifer Pinckney as far as the White House to sit with the Pinckneys’ daughters when President Barack Obama announced his recent executive actions. While Second Amendment rights must be protected, Malloy wants people to remember the two young girls who just celebrated their first Christmas without their father.



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