SC Senate passes bill with tougher domestic violence sentences and gun ban for offenders


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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — In a state where gun rights tend to be fiercely guarded, the South Carolina Senate on Wednesday agreed to take firearms away from many people convicted of criminal domestic violence.

The gun ban would still require a judge's approval for the least serious offenses. A provision adding that requirement cleared the way for passage of the bill to strengthen domestic violence penalties across the board. The measure passed 38-3 after nearly two weeks of debate.

It still must pass the House, which is considering a domestic violence bill with a less stringent gun ban. But lawmakers in both chambers appear ready to take some kind of action to curb domestic violence, as South Carolina frequently ranks among the worst in the nation in the number of people killed that way.

"Solving this problem is as much about changing hearts and minds as legislation. But this is a very important first step," said Sen. Greg Hembree, who helped put together the bill.

The Senate bill would create three different degrees of criminal domestic violence, depending on the amount of violence involved and whether there are previous convictions. Currently, prosecutors only have two options, which vary widely depending on the severity of the offense.

Much of the debate in this heavily conservative state centered on the gun ban. Opponents were worried that allowing the ban to be automatic for all convictions might take away weapons from people who didn't deserve to lose their gun rights.

The bill would still automatically ban offenders from owning guns for 10 years if convicted of the two most serious degrees. Under an amendment that cleared the way for passage, a third-degree domestic violence conviction would lead to a five-year gun ban, but only if a judge approved.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, backed the amendment, saying lawmakers couldn't foresee every circumstance and should allow judges some discretion. The amendment passed by two votes.

"It's a smidge disappointing on the amendment, but that's just a minor policy difference," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who helped make the bill a priority this session.

The federal government has a similar gun ban, but supporters said this assures the law will be enforced here.

The bill should get a final procedural vote next week, and lawmakers in both chambers have voiced support for it. State Attorney General Alan Wilson and local prosecutors want the new penalties. Gov. Nikki Haley has created a task force to study domestic violence that includes members from law enforcement, courts, churches, health care, social services and cosmetology.

Hembree, who served 25 years as a prosecutor, said he thinks South Carolina is quickly getting less tolerant of abusers.

"When I started, I remember judges and law enforcement thinking if it happened in the four walls of your house, there was no need to get involved," said Hembree, R-Little River.

More than 36,000 people annually report a domestic violence incident to law enforcement agencies around South Carolina, according to the state attorney general's office.

Lawmakers are considering other ways of combating domestic violence, like removing a requirement that married couples wait a year to get divorced and requiring education in schools about domestic violence and abuse.

In an often contentious debate, the Senate's only female member took public exception to a joke made over dinner one evening by Greeneville Republican Sen. Tom Corbin, an opponent of the provision. Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said his remark that women were made from a lesser cut of meat than men was demeaning.

On Tuesday on the Senate floor, Shealy told the story of her sister's 30-year abusive relationship in public for the first time. That relationship included physical and mental abuse and ended with her brother-in-law killing himself on the hood of his estranged wife's car. A suicide note said he planned to kill her, then himself, but Shealy's sister was not harmed.

"It is a strong bill although we did not get everything we wanted," said Shealy, R-Lexington, in a statement. "It is a start in the right direction for South Carolina."

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