South Carolina Considering Lifting Ban on Guns in Schools

The Charleston, SC, Post and Courier
Thursday, May 10, 2007

University of South Carolina professor Patrick Nolan knows exactly what he would want to do if a gun-wielding assailant burst into his classroom: He’d blow him away.

“I would have no hesitation,” said Nolan, who holds a state-issued concealed weapons permit and has taught sociology at USC for 15 years. “I would tell my students to get down, and I would stop the attack.”

South Carolina and most other states ban permit holders from bringing weapons onto school campuses and other public property. But a bill pending in the S.C. House would allow anyone with a concealed weapons permit to carry a gun onto public school and college campuses. Nolan said he believes he could better protect his students if he brought his .357-caliber Magnum to class.

“That’s why we have shootings on school campuses, because the shooters know schools are gun-free zones and nobody is going to stop them,” Nolan said.

On Wednesday, the House’s Judiciary Committee took testimony from campus public safety officials and gun-rights advocates, two groups that come down squarely on opposite sides of the issue.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens, introduced the legislation in response to claims that the tragedy at Virginia Tech last month could have been avoided, or at least blunted, if more people on campus were armed. About 20 other lawmakers have signed on to Duncan’s bill.

Kathy Maness represents some 6,000 teachers as executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. She said she prays that conditions in South Carolina schools never reach the point where teachers must pack heat alongside their lesson plans. “I just don’t think it’s safe to have guns in school. What if we have a student who is going off the deep end and they get that gun?”

The state’s Commission on Higher Education declined to comment on the bill; other academic and education groups have said that allowing weapons to be brought onto campuses is a bad idea.

House members adjourned debate on the bill Wednesday, and it is not scheduled to come back up before the end of the session. House Majority Leader Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, supports the proposal but thinks it has little chance of passage this year.

Merrill said the bill might have more appeal if it limited the gun-carrying privilege to school faculty and administrators. “This legislation might be a little extreme,” he said. “The students — that might be a little more than folks can stomach.”

Columbia College Police Chief Howard Cook said that allowing civilians to carry weapons on campus could lead to more violence, not less. Officers responding to a shooting already have enough to deal with without having to discern which shooters are legitimate. “It’s difficult for us to decide who are the good guys. If SWAT shoots the faculty member, it just goes round and round.”

Cook, president of the S.C. Campus Law Enforcement Association, said many concealed weapons permit holders lack training in high-stress environments and that their experience is limited to “shooting at paper targets in optimal conditions,” he said.

Ernest Ellis, who oversees law enforcement at USC, said a classroom could be transformed into a virtual shooting gallery if an assailant opened fire and several students reached for their own weapons. “How accurate would their shots be in that case, and would we have even more victims?”

Robert Butler, vice president of Lexington-based GrassRoots Gun Rights, also testified Wednesday. He said concealed weapons permit holders are the good guys and that the mere possibility that they could be sitting in classrooms and walking across campuses is enough to deter most would-be murderers. “If we truly loved our children, we would not create safe havens for the killers of our children,” Butler said.

Butler said law-abiding gun owners have helped stop or minimize violence in at least three school-related incidents over the years.

Nolan, who practices marksmanship in simulated “real-world” environments and teaches training courses for people applying for concealed weapons permits, said most permit holders are not casual gun owners. They practice and have accepted a responsibility.

“When you decide to carry a weapon, you have to ask yourself, ‘Am I prepared to use it?’ ”

Reach Ron Menchaca at rmenchaca@postandcourier.com or 937-5724.

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