Sunday, May 20, 2007

In the Shadow of a Massacre - Are we Safe?

Here in South Carolina, and the Nation for that matter, we have two choices when thinking about the tragedy on the campus of Virginia Tech. We can put our head in the sand, hide from the issue, hope and pray that nothing like this, God willing, will ever happen here. Or we can choose to be proactive in addressing whether or not our campuses are as safe and secure as they should be. I have chosen the latter of the two because I would not want, at some time down the road, for something terrible to happen here and have South Carolinians ask “What did our elected officials do to make sure we were safe following the Virginia Tech massacre?”

Here is what I know: In 1996, the South Carolina Legislature wrote our current Concealed Weapons Permit (CWP) laws and in doing so, created a number of exemptions in the right to carry laws, one being an exemption from the right to legally carry a firearm with a concealed weapons permit on college and school campuses. In the 10 years since this law was enacted, South Carolina has issued almost 54,000 Concealed Weapons Permits. There has not been a single documented case of a CWP holder in a crime where a firearm has been involved. Not a single one. To obtain a CWP in this state, you must be 21 years old or older, undergo both a criminal and mental health background check, and complete an 8 hour firearm safety class with instruction on the state’s concealed carry laws.

The Bill: I didn’t draft a new bill to address the issue. I had legal counsel take the existing CWP law, with its campus exemptions, and strike everything that dealt with school campuses. Why? So that we would have a clean slate as we began the process of discussing this issue, because safety and security are important enough for us to consider everything, leaving no stone unturned or argument unanswered. I knew that there would be cynics and critics, and that I would catch a lot of heat over this issue. That heat I am willing to take for tackling the difficult and emotional issues in order to insure that our children and college students are as safe as we can make them.

Many folks think the idea for this legislation came directly from the Virginia Tech incident. It did not. As a matter of fact, a Clemson student asked us to look into this same issue late last spring, as he was concerned for his safety and the safety of other students in the wake of several violent episodes on and around the Clemson campus. There was no time at the end of the Legislative Session to begin the process of changing or creating laws. Then the massacre happened and the idea bubbled back to the surface. So we began looking into the way our state had created the so called “gun-free zones” on school and college campuses, to see if there was anything we might need to address.

What has it gotten us? Exactly what I had envisioned. Now we are thinking about and discussing the issues surrounding campus and school security. I have talked with the chiefs of campus security at Clemson, USC, MUSC, the College of Charleston and Columbia College. And although they may not agree with the legislation, they do agree that it is healthy for us to be talking about security at these venues, much the same way our Nation began talking about the security and safety of our country in the days which followed 9/11.

The national media has sensationalized the events at Virginia Tech to the point where normally rational and reasonable people are speculating that this legislation’s intent is to “arm school children and allow college students to carry firearms around in their book bags.” That couldn’t be further from the truth and simply reading the legislation would answer those questions.

More that I know: I am alarmed to find that not every school in South Carolina has a Resource Officer. If this is a budgetary issue, we could address it from Columbia or we could encourage our School Boards to put more emphasis on security by allocating the necessary resources for these officers. I also am aware that the current laws prohibit any firearm from coming onto campus, even if it is lawfully carried in the vehicle of a parent who is simply dropping off his children at the school in the morning. That would be a felony violation. Ever had a firearm in your vehicle when you have traveled to a Clemson or Carolina football game, for your protection and that of your family if something were to happen on the late-night drive home after the game? Once you are on school property, you are technically in a Felony violation of the law.

I chose the existing law as the template from which to work as we move forward. I have stated very clearly that it has NEVER been the intent to allow CWP holders to carry firearms into the stadium or coliseum for sporting events, and I would support an amendment addressing that. Some folks, however, would use the sensationalizing of this one facet of the bill to cloud the true objective – the safety of our campuses and that simply is not fair.

This bill is most likely not the answer and it does have its legitimate questions. Even with 20 Co-Sponsors, I am not pushing it. But rather, I am letting the tried and true legislative process of discussion, public input and debate work. The issue is so important to the American people that the topic has made all of the major newspapers in the state, every Columbia TV station, along with national news channels like CNN, CNN Radio, HNN, FOX NEWS, CBS, ABC and multiple radio stations across two states. The discussions cover everything from school/campus safety to a citizen’s right to personal protection on down to the meaning of the United States Constitution. Who can argue that it is not healthy for us to discuss the issue?

Conclusions: I do know that Virginia’s law on this topic is very similar to South Carolina’s law. I also know that, while it's not clear that a CWP holder would have stopped the Virginia Tech shooter, it is clear that the ban of firearms on campus did nothing to hinder the murderer there. Persons intent on committing these type crimes are not going to “first check in at the office” prior to going onto the campus. Remember, it wasn’t very long ago that Presbyterian College (in my District) had an intruder, who ultimately killed himself on campus, but who could have just as easily entered a building on campus and committed a Virginia Tech style shooting instead of just wandering around there for half an hour or so.

Just Added: Good Read: A Principal & His Gun