The South Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to approve a bill that would allow concealed guns to be brought into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.
The bill, which was introduced in January by state Sen. Sean Bennett (R-Dorchester), would amend an earlier South Carolina state law that makes bringing a firearm into a place that serves beer, wine or liquor a crime punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 or a prison term of up to three years -- or both.
The updated law, however, would eliminate those penalties, allowing anyone with a concealed carry permit to bring a gun into a place where alcohol is consumed on the premises, with the important exception that people carrying guns are not permitted to drink.
The bill also gives restaurant and bar owners the power to decide for themselves if their establishments will allow patrons to bring weapons inside.
State Sen. Larry Martin (R-Pickens), one of the bill's sponsors, said the bill was intended to allow law-abiding people to protect themselves.
"Most folks are gonna use this opportunity to go into restaurants, which aren't easily distinguished in South Carolina from bars, they'll be going into restaurants with their families to eat a dinner in the evening, to go eat with their family with their weapons with them and walking back to their car with the benefit of protection that a concealed weapon affords," he told The Huffington Post over the phone Wednesday.
When asked about the dangers of having concealed weapons in saloons, Sen. Martin said, "I don't believe any CWP [concealed weapons permit] owners would go to a bar with their weapon, since [the bill says] you can't drink alcohol with a weapon. The criminal element tends to thumb their nose at the rules, but CWP owners tend to abide by the law."
Jason Fletcher, co-owner of upscale bistro The Green Room, in downtown Greenville, S.C., said he would forbid people from bringing concealed weapons into his restaurant if the law passes.
"I don't see the advantage of bringing a gun into an establishment that serves alcohol," he told HuffPost. "You might not be drinking but someone else might. Incidents can arise any time."
South Carolina is one of the few remaining states that specifically prohibit carrying guns into restaurants that serve alcohol. (Many states have no law explicitly prohibiting it, making it legal by default.) In North Carolina, it's also illegal to bring a gun into a bar or restaurant that serves alcohol, but legislators attempted last year to change that. In Illinois you can't bring a concealed gun into a bar or anywhere else, because Illinois has a statewide ban on concealed carry -- the last state in the nation with such a ban. However, Illinois is in the process of getting rid of that ban after a federal appellate court in December ruled the law unconstitutional.
In recent years, however, a handful of states have passed laws specifically allowing guns to be brought into places that serve alcohol. These states include Arizona, Ohio, Virginia and Tennessee, where the legislator who sponsored the state's law stepped down from his post as chairman of a firearms task force after he was arrested for drunken driving with a .38-caliber handgun in his car.
The South Carolina House passed a similar bill last year by an overwhelming margin, but the bill was never signed into law.
The new bill now proceeds to the full Senate for a vote. Sen. Martin said he expects the Senate will vote on the bill before Easter.