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Senators propose gun ban, stiffer penalties to reform South Carolina’s domestic violence laws

By Doug Pardue and Glenn Smith, The Post and Courier

The head of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee is pushing new legislation that would bring sweeping reform to South Carolina's domestic violence laws, creating a tiered system of offenses, increasing penalties and barring batterers from possessing guns.

Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican who chairs the committee, is the lead sponsor among six senators who introduced the pre-filed legislation on Wednesday to address a festering problem that has made South Carolina one of nation's deadliest states for women.

"It's time to turn the tide on our terrible statistics," Martin said. He believes his bill would go a long way toward doing that, especially the gun-ban provision. 

"The idea, as far as I'm concerned, it's a sensible proposal to eliminate opportunity to continue domestic violence that escalates to death," Martin said.

The bill, if adopted, would bring dramatic change to the state's domestic violence laws for the first time in a decade. It closely mirrors proposals that a special House Committee has been discussing for months.

Among other things, the bill would:

Restructure criminal domestic violence laws into a tiered system of degrees based on the severity of the crime, with escalating penalties that range from 30 days in jail to 10 years in prison. S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has advocated for such a system, saying prosecutors and judges need greater discretion in meting out charges and penalties.

Bar those convicted of domestic violence offenses or facing protective orders from possessing firearms or holding a concealed-weapons permit. Batterers would face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $1,000 if caught with a gun.

Require those charged with criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature to attend a batterer intervention program and bar them from having firearms or ammunition as a condition of bail.

Allow courts to grant permanent no-contact orders to prevent abusers from harassing victims. Police could arrest violators without a warrant and the offender would face a felony carrying up to five years in prison.

The bill includes some of the key recommendations made in The Post and Courier's August series, "Till Death Do Us Part," which revealed that more than 300 women have died in domestic homicides in South Carolina over the past decade, about one killing every 12 days. The newspaper's investigation also found that the Legislature has failed to undertake any serious reform of South Carolina's domestic violence laws in that time.

The state currently ranks second in the nation for the rate of women killed by men. South Carolina has topped that list three times in the past decade, most recently in 2013.

Martin said he already has assigned Republican Sen. Greg Hembree of Myrtle Beach, who has had extensive experience prosecuting domestic violence cases, to chair a Judiciary subcommittee to get the reform bill ready for introduction on the Senate floor in January. A House Committee working on domestic violence reform has a similar timetable for introducing its proposals.

The attorney general said he's working with Martin as well, and his staff is meeting this week with solicitors and the state sheriffs' association in an effort to do a thoughtful and complete overhaul of the state's domestic violence laws.

"Domestic violence is one of my top priorities in the first few weeks of the General Assembly," Wilson said. "It's just something that I'm going to work tirelessly on."

Gov. Nikki Haley said the conversation about domestic violence needs to extend beyond the Legislature and examine how the existing laws are applied throughout the state to protect the abused. But she applauded Martin for pushing the issue forward and said her office will take a close look at his bill, including the proposed gun ban for abusers.

"We have said before that if they take guns away from offenders, we are fine with that," Haley said. "Again, that's all about following the law and we want to be careful about who we allow to carry."

Abusers and guns

The gun provision will likely face the stiffest opposition in the Republican-dominated Legislature. Opponents contend the issue is already addressed by federal law and a state measure would be an unnecessary duplication that could infringe on gun rights.

Federal law bans those convicted of domestic violence from buying or possessing guns, but South Carolina has no enabling legislation to allow the state to enforce that prohibition. Many other states have passed laws that mirror the federal statutes to accomplish that goal.

State Rep. Peter McCoy, a Charleston Republican who is on the House Committee studying domestic violence reform, said he likes several of the provisions in Martin's bill, but he opposes a gun ban and predicts the measure would gain little traction in the Legislature.

"I am personally against that," he said. "I think that is going to pose a real problem in terms of being passed."

Martin acknowledged the gun ban will be an uphill battle. "I'm going to get some heat from those folks who view this as an assault on the Second Amendment," Martin said. His answer to those who raise gun-rights concerns: "Don't commit domestic violence and you won't have to worry about it."

The overwhelming weapon of choice in domestic killings is a firearm. A Post and Courier study earlier this year revealed that guns were used in 65 percent all domestic homicides of women.

Sara Barber, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said polls have shown that around 80 percent of South Carolinians support passing a state law to mirror the federal prohibition on guns for abusers. She said the bill filed Wednesday "marks an important step in the Legislature listening and responding to this common sense viewpoint."

"The intersection between guns and domestic violence is all too often a deadly one, leaving devastated children and families in its wake," she said.

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