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The Gunfighters

I’m a Republican Lawmaker in the Deep South. These Are the Gun Laws I Can Support.

'I’m not one of those types who believe that any common sense approach to solving a problem is always trumped by the Second Amendment.'

It is known as the “Charleston loophole.” Three months before Dylann Roof opened fire in a Charleston, South Carolina, church, killing nine black parishioners, he was arrested for drug possession. The offense should have ultimately prevented him from purchasing the Glock handgun he used in the massacre. But a clerical error meant the FBI examiner conducting Roof’s background check was unable to get more information about the arrest within the 72 hours allotted under the law. So the purchase was automatically approved, in a “default proceed” sale.

In the aftermath of the mass killing, South Carolina lawmakers introduced legislation that would extend the time that federal investigators have to review background checks for gun buyers. But in April, the head of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, Larry Martin, squashed the bill, and two other gun reform measures, by refusing to hold hearings on them.

South Carolina State Senator Larry Martin. (Illustration by Alex Fine for The Trace)

The move could be viewed as another case of a conservative lawmaker in a conservative state acting according to the standard ideological script — killing anything that appears to threaten the Second Amendment. And Martin says the he did oppose those bills on ideological grounds. But he also says that he declined to hold hearings for practical reasons: He didn’t want to give a platform to ultra right-wing gun groups who would use a doomed bill to rally their members to flood his phone line and crash his inbox. Martin believes the current three-day background check window is sufficient, and that the poor records reporting that allowed Roof to get his gun can be remedied without legislation.

Martin’s broader record shows a Southern conservative politician more willing than most to challenge the gun lobby. He has sponsored, and ushered through, legislation that seeks to keep guns away from potentially dangerous people, like domestic abusers and the severely mentally ill. He now says he will also work to defeat a bill, approved by an overwhelming majority by the state House of Representatives on Monday, that would allow state residents to carry concealed weapons in public without a license. 

Here is Martin discussing his votes on gun reform, the backlash from some of the bills he has supported, and what he thinks is really driving the so-called permitless carry movement, as told to Mike Spies.

In a Southern state like South Carolina, there are ways to determine whether gun control legislation is good or bad. The essential thing to keep in mind is that “bad” is anything that contradicts the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment provides a very clear grant of authority under our Constitution for law-abiding citizens to have firearms in their homes, cars, or on their person, if they so choose.

But I’m not one of those types who believe that any common sense approach to solving a problem is always trumped by the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment sets a high bar for taking someone’s gun rights away, but if you’ve demonstrated you’re a threat, some action needs to be taken.

I’m not one of those types who believe that any common sense approach to solving a problem is always trumped by the Second Amendment”

There were bills at the start of the session about creating a gun registry, extending waiting periods, and banning assault weapons. I wouldn’t hold a hearing on them because it would have been taken by some very extreme gun rights groups — not the NRA, but the fringe groups — they would have used the mere fact that we held a hearing as a fundraising tool. And I have no interest in raising money for those fringe groups. I’ve seen the emails they’ve sent out on me where they were soliciting contributions so that they could shut down that gun-grabbing Senator from Pickens, which is where I’m from.

I had no intention of allowing them the pleasure of convincing folks that I was holding a hearing on something that I knew would never pass. The legislation was so off the wall in terms of what’s practical anymore. You might get three votes in the senate, maybe four. We just can’t take up every bill that’s introduced. And the chair needs to make a decision sometimes on what’s the best use of staff time.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on an issue that can’t pass and shouldn’t pass. All of what was in those bills, every aspect, was, I think, in a gross violation of the Second Amendment, and not in the spirit of what people believe is reasonable.

Let’s talk about good legislation. It keeps guns away from criminals and, at the same time, does not step on the toes of law-abiding citizens. There is a natural tension between what law-abiding citizens can do and criminals can’t do.

Twenty years ago we enacted a concealed weapons permit law, and of course we’ve expanded that over the years in terms of the locations in which law-abiding citizens can carry a weapon, but we still have restrictions on it.

We still have gun-free zones, for example, despite the constant suggestion that they are are a bad idea. I don’t think it’s sensible to do away with the notion that there are places we don’t want people carrying guns. Even in the 1800s, if you walked into most municipalities, it was understood you didn’t take your gun into the local tavern or a local business.

Where guns are allowed is a discussion we’re going to continue to have. I’m not opposed to having administrators and educators, who have been properly trained, carry weapons in a school environment, for example.

I don’t think it’s sensible to do away with the notion that there are places we don’t want people carrying guns.”

We passed a law several years ago to prevent the mentally ill from purchasing weapons. Some viewed it as a form of gun control. But I don’t think you should be able to walk out of a mental hospital, and then buy a firearm.

I also recently sponsored domestic violence legislation that created quite a furor. I don’t believe people who threaten to kill their family members or spouses should have access to weapons. I was accused of being a gun grabber. What I was up against, as an architect of the bill, was a state that led the country in domestic violence deaths. Other states had passed similar legislation to take guns from domestic abusers. If someone is considered to be a threat after a court hearing, the judge ought to have the discretion to have that person surrender their weapons.

I don’t think it’s very difficult to be a Republican in my situation, though I’ve gotten some opposition. There’s a Facebook page called “Fire Larry Martin.” So yes, I’ve been attacked, but I think the [domestic violence] bill was very reasonable, and think voters will view it that way. The electorate ultimately agrees with me.

Permitless carry tacitly encourages the criminal element to disregard the obvious. And that is: don’t carry a gun.”

Permitless carry has been pushed now for a number of years in South Carolina. I don’t agree with it.

First, I believe that the training component, which is required when you obtain a concealed carry permit, is essential. Training teaches the difference between brandishing a weapon and pulling it out in self-defense. If you’re going to have folks walking around in the kind of environment we have today, you need that training.

Second, criminals know about the enhanced penalties that come with carrying a weapon, and they know they’ll get more time in jail if they’re caught carrying. Permitless carry, however, tacitly encourages the criminal element to disregard the obvious. And that is: don’t carry a gun.

It’s also called “constitutional carry,” which implies permitless carry is a right. I don’t get that. Justice Antonin Scalia made clear that the Second Amendment does not guarantee the right to carry whatever, whenever, wherever. This whole argument has never been made before. If it was an inherent constitutional right, it would have come up before 2010.

If you look at how constitutional carry has evolved over the last six to eight years, and I’ll just be blunt about it, I think the election of President Barack Obama contributed to the frenzy. These constitutional carry organizations have rallied behind the battle cry that he’s coming for your guns. A lot of folks take the position that, “Hey, that’s okay, but I’m going to be wearing one when he does.”

Frankly, it’s a political statement. That’s what it is. And I think history will prove me right.

[Photo: AP Photo/John Bazemore]