HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – The number of active concealed weapons permits in the state of South Carolina doubled over the past five years. As more people are purchasing and carrying guns, the gun control debate reignites over who is responsible for your safety.
On a Saturday morning, 27 adults sat elbow-to-elbow in a classroom ready to learn about gun laws. Their certified Instructor, Laura Longo, stood up holding an unloaded gun and opened the eight-hour class by stating, "I am not your attorney, I am your instructor. I am here to teach you the basics, and it is your responsibility to learn about your gun and the law."
To legally conceal a gun in certain places, you must be 21 years old and you must not be a felon. The law-abiding citizen must also take a class that is regulated by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. While the classes do not have to follow any certain format or be any particular length, certified instructors are required to cover the basics before handing out a written test and grading students as they qualify on the range.
"If you're not familiar with your firearm in a controlled setting, you're not going to be able to use it in a panicked environment," said Robert Battista, the co-owner of the 707 Gun Shop. At the shop, concealed weapons permit courses are booked months in advance with sometimes more than 25 students per class.
"This class does teach you when you can and can't carry legally," said Battista. "And when you can and can't use your firearm in a situation. And without that, you're going to have a lot of people not sure when they can use deadly force. And that's going to lead to a lot of innocent, law-abiding citizens getting themselves in bad situations and winding up in jail out of ignorance. And ignorance is no excuse for the law."
Longo asked the class of CWP students what the two biggest causes of firearm accidents are. After looking over their notes, the class answered, "Ignorance and carelessness."
South Carolina gun laws were last changed in 2014. Part of that change was to cut out the eight-hour class requirement, based on a person's experience with guns.
"We want to make sure that everybody is safe," reassured Rep. Alan Clemmons, (R) 107th District. "That was the goal of concealed weapons permits. So that there was knowledge in safety. And by making the class time a sliding-scale class time depending on the experience of the person seeking the permit, I think it was a good standard. We're not seeing any decrease in safety as a result."
No matter how long of a class a student takes, in order to obtain a permit, you must verify that you have a "working understanding" of:
- Statutory and case law regarding deadly force
- South Carolina law governing firearms and concealed weapons permits
- Proper firearms storage practices that deny access to children
- Prohibited carry locations
- Liability and responsibility issues relating to firearms
- Proper interaction with Law Enforcement Officers
- The four cardinal firearm safety rules
- Handgun safety, manipulation, and operation
- Basic handgun marksmanship
- Proper concealment techniques and drawing from concealment
- Qualification on the range with the instructor
These documents are signed by the student and the instructor and sent off to SLED. But that signature is also the student's promise to do more research and to practice.
"It is your responsibility to maintain a working knowledge of your firearm," said Longo. "It is your responsibility to make sure you keep up with the laws."
South Carolina law puts the onus on the gun owner and permit holder. Those who support more gun regulations question whether or not it is acceptable to rely on a gun owner and permit holder to be responsible enough to use a gun safely. Some gun store owners, instructors, and legislators argue you cannot legislate common sense.
"I think the responsibility should fall on the individual," said Rep. Clemmons. "I think that's where the forefathers intended it to fall. So that you are exercising your God-given intelligence in deciding whether or not you can safely use what the Constitution of the United States says you can use."
Since 2011, according to SLED statistics, the number of approved concealed weapons permits in the state of South Carolina nearly doubled. And in Horry County that number skyrocketed from almost 10,000 permits in 2011 to well over 21,000 active permits in 2015. These statistics are included in this story, and the numbers are broken down by totals, counties, gender, and race:
"Here in South Carolina, all you have to do is ask," said Battista. "Can I have a gun permit? And they will gladly give you one. All we ask of you is you sit down and you take a class so you familiarize yourself with our state law."
Two legal gun owners and permit holders, side-by-side, might never make the same decision. But they will be held to the same standard.
"Yes, you have the right to own firearms," said Battista. "But you have a responsibility to make sure you do it legally and you do it safely."