South Carolina on Tuesday became the latest state to allow concealed weapons in bars, making it the most recent victory ground for gun rights activists who have peeled back more than a dozen state-level gun restrictions in recent years.
The new law, signed by Gov. Nikki Haley a week after a man was fatally shot in a South Carolina bar parking lot, allows people holding concealed-weapon permits to carry firearms in places that serve food or alcohol, as long as they don't drink while inside. The law has a significant exemption: Establishments may enact their own weapon bans, provided they post a large sign in their window warning customers of their policy.
That bar and restaurant owners are now forced into the unpleasant position of potentially alienating some portion of their clientele by either posting a sign -- or not posting a sign -- is a win for gun groups that for decades have pursued local strategies for rolling back gun laws in states. Thanks to their work, it's now easier than ever before to carry guns in many public places in the U.S. South Carolina is their latest conquest.
Oklahoma, for example, recently made it easier for residents to openly carry guns in public, and a movement is underway in Texas to enact a similar measure. (It even has the backing of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis). Tennessee, Ohio, Arizona, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina have all enacted laws similar to the one just adopted in South Carolina, allowing for concealed-carry in bars and restaurants. Kentucky is also considering legislation.
The advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, formed in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, has attempted to counter this momentum. Its strategy, thus far, has hinged on persuading business owners that it is in their best economic interest to enact gun bans.
In recent days, volunteers for the South Carolina chapter of Moms Demand Action have gone door-to-door to dozens of establishments, including national chains, said Erin Dando, the chapter leader.
"So far this is mostly about education," Dando said. "Most business and bar owners don't even know that there has been a drastic change in state policy. We are telling them that they still have the right to ban concealed firearms."
But once educated, Moms Demand Action expects establishments to take their side, or face repercussions.
"We are letting them know we will only go to places that have gun bans," Dando said.
So far, this type of approach has yielded some limited success. Last summer, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote an open letter to customers asking that they not bring guns into the coffee chain's retail locations, a position the moms' group had lobbied to bring about. But a recent effort to convince Staples stores to ban guns hasn't gained much traction.
A current fight underway in North Carolina between the Moms Demand Action and gun rights supporters suggests that the organization can achieve some victories at the local level, but that they are hard-fought. After a law similar to the South Carolina one passed in the state last year, dozens of businesses hung "no guns allowed" signs in windows at the urging of gun-control activists. Some, though, later took down their sign after they received angry calls and emails from gun rights supporters.
South Carolina bars and restaurants will likely soon face the same choice.
Dando said she is encouraged by what she has heard so far. Some bars, she said, have already hung signs, which under the new law must be uniform: 8-inches by 12 inches, with the words "NO CONCEALABLE WEAPONS ALLOWED" in black, 1-inch-tall, uppercase type, with a black silhouette of a handgun inside a 7-inch circle with a diagonal line through it. The law also forces businesses to abide by strict rules in placing the signs.
The rollback of the bar gun ban could be followed by even more drastic action. At the signing ceremony, Haley said she supports another bill currently under consideration by lawmakers that would completely eliminate all permitting, fees and training requirements for carrying weapons, according to The State, a newspaper in Columbia, S.C.
Gov. Haley signed the measure allowing concealed-carry in bars and restaurants around midday on Tuesday, while the attention of most of the state was on a snow and ice storm barreling down on the South.
"She signed it right after she declared a state of emergency, which I find ironic," Dando said.