Jim Irvine, the gun-toting president of the Buckeye Firearms Association in Ohio, is looking forward to summertime. He likes South Carolina’s beaches, but his family skipped out on vacationing here last year because of what he called the “screwy laws” in our state. Those laws, however, are expected to change soon — and for the better, in his opinion. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley is set to sign a new law allowing concealed weapons permit holders to bring loaded weapons into bars and restaurants. It's similar to a law that went into affect in Ohio three years ago. “Now that I know this, I’m going to put South Carolina back on our list,” Irvine says.
Because of the new law, the front door of your favorite South Carolina eatery or watering hole might look a little different the next time you drop by. The law allows anyone with a concealed weapons permit to carry inside a business that serves alcohol as long as there isn’t a sign saying they can’t — and as long as they don’t drink. It also eliminates the mandatory eight-hours of training to receive a permit, among other provisions. Bar and restaurant owners across the state have essentially been picking sides: post a sign and potentially piss off gun owners, or don’t and potentially alienate patrons who would rather not eat or drink among people carrying guns.
While a similar debate in the hospitality world played out in Ohio shortly before and after the law passed, these days it doesn’t really come up much.
Toby Hoover, who runs the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, says specific instances of violence involving firearms and places that serve alcohol are hard to track. “There certainly have been a number of incidents, but it doesn’t always zero right in on the fact that they had a permit to carry,” she says. “I mean the fact that they were at a bar and they went out in their car and got a gun could have been somebody with a permit.”
She says, however, that the new law did change the culture of her state. “It’s changing how we live because we’re just assuming and accepting that everybody can carry a gun everywhere,” she says. “And adding guns to a lot of different anger situations is not a good idea.”
That said, Hoover admits that she often meets bartenders who don’t even know about the 2011 law. When that happens she usually offers them a no guns allowed sign. “They usually just go put it up,” she says.
Irvine tells a different story of his state's landscape in the wake of Ohio Senate Bill 17. “I’ll tell you, before the law passed there was all this screaming and crying that there was going to be blood in the streets, that there were going to be shootouts in the bars, that fistfights were going to turn into gun fights every Friday night. I mean, the world was going to come to an end up here,” he says. “And here we are a year and a half later and I can tell you nothing has changed.”
Like in South Carolina, Ohio bars and restaurant operators can choose to post a sign prohibiting concealed carry. Matthew MacLaren, president and CEO of the Ohio Hotel and Lodging Association, says he can’t recall any big issues about the law since it became the norm “It’s a business decision,” he says. “You have some patrons that appreciate no guns allowed and others that would rather see guns allowed.”
In recent weeks around Charleston, progressive activists had been dropping off yellow flyers that alert hospitality workers to the likely law change. In media accounts, bar owners have been split on the issue. That’s representative of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, which hasn’t taken a position on the bill because its members are split. Association director John Durst says they started talking about the issue with their members when it was first introduced. “The ability of an establishment to ‘opt out’ has been important to our association,” he says.
Last week in Charleston, Gov. Haley, a handgun owner with a concealed weapons permit, staked out her own claim on the hospitality battlefield. She told reporters outside The Citadel Feb. 4 that if she owned a bar she wouldn’t post a sign prohibiting guns. “I don’t have a problem with people carrying anywhere,” she said, adding that she would “absolutely” let people carry guns inside her hypothetical booze hall.
As of this year, there are six states that allow guns in bars, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Those include neighbors North Carolina and Georgia, as well as Arizona, Virginia, Tennessee, and Ohio. But according to the New York Times, as of 2010 there were 22 states that allowed weapons in businesses that serve alcohol. The different numbers are because of how bars and restaurants are defined in certain states, says state Sen. Sean Bennett (R-Dorchester), who sponsored the new gun law here.
Bennett was elected in 2012, and his firearms bill could very well be the one that busts his legislative cherry. The financial planner from Summerville introduced it last year and says he was surprised at how quickly his measure made it through the General Assembly, especially since similar bills had failed here several times. The bill had bi-partisan support, and Vincent Sheheen (D-Camden), Haley's likely opponent for governor, voted for it. Bennett calls it a reasonable approach to the expansion of gun rights in a state with gun-friendly traditions, and says he introduced it because his constituents asked him to.
“I didn’t come to Columbia with this piece of legislation at the top of my agenda,” Bennett says. “My agenda is economic development, job creation and low taxes and all that good stuff. But, as you know, you’re faced with requests, and sometimes you introduce legislation that maybe isn’t on the top of your agenda, but is on the top of others'. So that’s how I got there … I was surprised we got it done in the first week.”
For many years, South Carolina did not have an entity that lobbied lawmakers about firearms regulation. One woman, a retired California transplant in Charleston named Evilyn Dolven, had tried for years to get people involved by writing letters to the editor of newspapers and talking to friends and neighbors. It never really caught on. That changed in South Carolina after the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
Now, there’s a Palmetto State chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which is led by Erin Dando, a 34-year-old mom of three in the Upstate. “I’m baffled that our Statehouse and our governor are not heeding the advice of our SLED chief or the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers Association for, really, common sense,” she says about the new law, which she fought. “I think all of us know that guns and alcohol don’t mix and even though the bill prohibits CWP holders from drinking, that doesn’t mean that we’re in a safe environment if other people are intoxicated and confront somebody who’s armed with a gun.”
Dando says her group has about 1,000 members, and one of the things they’ve been doing is reaching out to bars and restaurants across the state. Most they’ve spoken to didn’t even know about the bill, or where to get signs, she says, so they’ve been helping with that. Dando’s members, however, are also telling hospitality workers something else: if you allow guns inside, we’ll take our business elsewhere.
“They’ve been put in a really tough position,” Dando says. “The one thing that they do need to know is that only 4.8 percent of the citizenry in South Carolina have a concealed weapons permit and the other 94 percent don’t. And if they look at which side to pick based on their pocketbook that should very well tell what they should do or not do.”
Much of Dando’s work with lawmakers here has been at the federal level. She applauds the state’s lone Democratic congressman, Jim Clyburn, for being a co-sponsor of a U.S. House resolution to ensure that anyone prohibited from buying a firearm is listed in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Dando has been urging the state’s other six congressmen to do the same. She ticks off a list of reasons she believes South Carolina ought to change its gun culture — state has the highest rate of women killed by men, and a high rate of law enforcement officers killed by guns.
“We have one of the highest gun homicide rates in the nation and we also have some of the weakest gun laws,” she says. “When people know that, I think they’re much more willing to support the middle ground.” Asked what that middle ground is, she says it’s respecting the Second Amendment and respecting responsible gun ownership, but also addressing loopholes in the laws that allow private sales without background checks. “We are working to change the fact that in South Carolina you can’t talk about gun reform and guns in general without people getting upset and very passionate either way,” she says. “This is not about the Second Amendment. This is about public safety and keeping our families and communities safe.”
As far as the signs are concerned, SLED spokesman Thom Berry says the law is very explicit about the specifications of the new signs — shape, size of letters, dimensions, etc. — but any reputable sign maker should be able to create one. Last week sign maker Brian Truex, who owns a shop called CWP Compliance, told the Columbia Free Times he’d made 1,500 signs in anticipation of the law. In the Charleston area, at least one sign maker last week wasn’t aware that local businesses might want them, and calculated how much they would cost to make after reading the law. Robert Stentiford of Identity Graphics in Summerville says he can stock a window decal for $12 each, and a large, metal 48-inch by 36-inch sign for outdoor events for $80.
Bennett, for one, doesn't care if a pool hall, gin joint or pizza place puts up a sign saying they allow guns or not. He’ll still eat or drink there. There's no picking sides for him. And he also knows if someone gets shot at a bar after the new law goes into effect, it will be “blown out of proportion.” Bad things are going to happen, he says, and he wants law-abiding citizens to be able to protect themselves accordingly. “I think that’s a fair approach.”
In Ohio, it didn't take long for the first incident to make headlines. Two weeks after the law went into effect, police in a Cincinnati suburb arrested a 25-year-old CWP holder after he threatened to kill another bar patron with his gun. Because he’d been drinking at the bar, the man got slapped with an additional illegal firearm charge.Jim Irvine of the Ohio gun group offers a version of the likely response from the new law’s supporters should something similar happen here.
“There are guns in bars now in South Carolina,” he says. “I guarantee you’ve covered stories where somebody shot somebody in a bar. You know what? It was illegal for him to be carrying a gun in there, it was illegal for him to be drinking with the gun, and it was illegal for him to shoot somebody over looking at his girlfriend or whatever stupid reason to shoot him. Stupid people do stupid things. They’re going to do it before the law passes, they’re going to do it after the law passes.”
For his part, Irvine says he hasn’t been patronizing Ohio bars or restaurants that have signs banning firearms, and he certainly would never take his family to one. He’s afraid such places attract criminals because they know there’s less of a chance they’ll get shot if they try to rob it. “Since I know that’s where the criminal's going, I don’t want to be there,” he says.
The new laws in Ohio, though, have also kept Irvine away from bars, period. Since he can’t drink while carrying his gun, he’s been spending much more time drinking at home with his wife. “And you know what I’ve found? I save a lot of money,” he says.