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Guns in South Carolina bars? Loose law has restrictive exceptions

When looking at a new South Carolina law on the bright side, for the very first time the phrase “Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms” could actually make sense despite the wide span of its individual terms.

In realistic terms, though, the recently-passed bill, which will be signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley on February 11, leaves a darker picture.

S. 308 allows persons with concealed weapon permits (CWP) to carry guns into bars and restaurants.

Prior to the bill’s passage, possession of a weapon in any alcohol-serving establishment in the state was a criminal offense with penalties of up to $2,000 and three years in prison.

To some in South Carolina, the new law seems to contrast with current needs, even when only based on recent incidents in the state capitol of Columbia alone. One man was shot at a restaurant in December 2013, three were shot at a Columbia bar on January 18, and on February 2 a man was killed by handgun inside another local barroom.

And even though the new law gives establishments the right to deny service to anyone carrying a weapon, exercising that right is difficult in and of itself, and could even make such efforts useless.

For example, a sign indicating that guns aren’t welcome in an establishment must measure eight inches by 12 inches, and contain the words “NO CONCEALABLE WEAPONS ALLOWED” in one-inch, all-caps text. It has to be posted within 40-to-60 inches from the doorway, and within a 40-to-96 inch height range. Even the sign’s image has specific restrictions; it must “contain a black silhouette of a handgun inside a circle seven inches in diameter with a diagonal line that runs from the lower left to the upper right at a forty-five degree angle from the horizontal(.)”

If these specificities aren’t met, then an establishment cannot lawfully restrict its customers from carrying concealed weapons on the premises, says Brian Truex, whose company provides signage in the required formats.

CWP Compliance opened in Myrtle Beach in 2012, Truex says, which is also when a similar bill was first proposed in South Carolina legislature.

Adding to the confusion, he says, some business organizations have provided members with signs that don’t meet these requirements, mostly due to incorrect size.

“Those signs are not valid. They have no force of law,” says Truex, a retired police officer.

Gun carriers are even encouraged to disobey those invalid signs, he says.

“I know a few (concealed weapon permit) instructors have told their students, ‘if the sign’s not the legal size, you can ignore it.’ Business owners don’t know that.”

Truex says his company sold about 750 proper formats of the sign in just the last two weeks.

He has no personal partiality on the issue; in fact, Truex is an NRA-certified firearms instructor himself, and CWP Compliance also sells signage that declares guns are welcome in an establishment. He agrees that bars and restaurants have valid concerns, though.

“When it comes to restaurants and bars, the complaints (regarding the new law) I’ve heard time and time again are not about the person carrying the weapon. They’re about somebody else’s drunken behavior” that could instigate others’ firearm use, he says, along with legal problems for the establishments.

“Civil litigation is a huge burden. (Establishments) need to protect themselves from any liability.”

For some bars and restaurants, though, a bigger burden could be lost business. Some organizers (who asked to remain anonymous due to perceived personal threats) recently distributed small flyers to many Charleston establishments requesting denial of service to gun-carrying customers.

Their flyers read: “I will be forced to assume any place of business without such a sign has people present with loaded weapons. … You will be forced to decide which group of customers to lose, those favoring loaded weapons in your place of business or those opposed to them.”

Of additional concern, protesting organizers say, is that the new law also removes previous requirements that applicants for concealed weapon permits take an instructional course. The stipulation had not been properly enforced, either.

In 2012, state law enforcement arrested multiple permit instructors for not providing required instruction, even giving answers to the written test applicants needed to pass in order to get concealed permits.

And South Carolina had to revoke 364 concealed weapon permits from gun owners last year alone, which the protestors say indicates additional risk when training is no longer required.

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