A Look at South Carolina’s Lax Gun Laws

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Details are still emerging in the Townsville Elementary School shooting, but Pacific Standard takes a look at how the state’s gun laws may have contributed.

By Kate Wheeling

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A gun shop manager poses for a photo beside a display of automatic weapons in a gun store in Simpsonville, South Carolina. (Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, two students and one teacher were shot at the Townsville Elementary School in South Carolina. One child was airlifted to a nearby hospital with non-life-threatening injuries; the other student and teacher were taken by ambulance, according to local media reports. There were no deaths at the school, but the Anderson County Coroner said that Jeffrey Osborne, the father of the suspect, was found dead in his home on Wednesday afternoon. Police had a teenage suspect in custody, but few other details have been released.

Without more information, its difficult to speculate about why someone would attack an elementary school, but in order to answer how these shootings can happen, we can start by looking at South Carolina’s gun laws.

In terms of gun deaths per capita, South Carolina ranks 11th in the United States, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The state’s gun laws are relatively relaxed: In South Carolina, you don’t need a permit to buy a rifle, shotgun, or handgun; there’s no limit to the number of firearms you can buy at once; and, once you’ve amassed all your guns, you don’t have to register them. The state only has a three-day waiting period for purchasing weapons, ostensibly to give the background check system enough time to weed out any criminals who should not have access to firearms. In reality, that system often breaks down over such short time scales, which is how Dylann Roof was able to obtain the handgun he used to shoot and kill nine people in a South Carolina church despite a criminal charge that should have precluded him from obtaining the weapon.

When it comes to concealed-carry permits, South Carolina is a “shall issue” state, which means that, once you pass a background check, law enforcement officials have no discretion in whether or not to issue such permits. In June, Governor Nikki Haley signed a bill into law allowing concealed carry permit holders to bring their guns into restaurants and bars (as long as they don’t drink while they’re there—drinking and carrying is still illegal). For private firearm sales between unlicensed individuals, you don’t even have to pass a background check, and, since 2012, firearm dealers selling handguns don’t need a dealer license.

The Anderson County Sheriff’s Office has said the bullets that injured the two students and the teacher in Townsville came from a handgun.

It’s probably not likely this latest shooting will spur the kind of legislative change the U.S. needs to fix its gun violence problem. As journalist Dan Hodges wrote in a viral tweet last year following the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina: “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”

Indeed, the loosening of gun regulations in South Carolina in recent years, despite the fact that mass shootings now occur more than once per day in the U.S., is actually in line with national sentiment. In 1993, 57 percent of Americans believed it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect the right to own firearms, with only 34 percent favoring the right to own guns, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2014, more Americans supported gun rights (52 percent) than gun control (46 percent).

Next month, public hearings will be held in Charleston, Hartsville, and Columbia with state senators to give South Carolina residents a chance to provide testimony on the sort of gun reforms the state needs. At the very least, reform still stands a chance.

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