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Open gun carry proposal in South Carolina on the ropes as conservatives fight among themselves

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A proposal to allow any legal gun owner to openly carry their weapon in public without training is struggling to pass through South Carolina's General Assembly as Republicans and gun rights supporters argue among themselves.

The bill would appear to be an easy lift in a reliably conservative state. Twenty-seven other states allow open carry of guns without a permit, including nearly every state in the Deep South.

But the bill is in limbo as some Senate Republicans insist on adding a carrot and stick to the proposal by funding the training currently required for open-carry permits, and adding extra punishments when people without the training carry guns into places where they are outlawed, like schools, hospitals, churches, government offices and courthouses.

Republicans in the House insisted on their own version Tuesday with a vote of 85-26, after only a few minutes of open debate and plenty of discussions behind closed doors.

“We debated it, we talked about it and we realized our bill is the best bill forward for South Carolinians to protect their freedoms and to get criminals off the street,” said House sponsor Republican Rep. Bobby Cox of Greer.

If the Senate stands firm for its version, chances for a compromise are uncertain in a conference committee made up of three members from each chamber.

The biggest sticking point is the extra Senate penalty for taking a weapon into a prohibited space without having taken the training for a concealed weapons permit. To encourage training, the Senate bill would pay at least $4 million to hold free classes across the state.

The Senate's version left plenty of supporters of the open carry idea unhappy, including gun rights groups.

While the National Rifle Association backed the Senate version, saying open carry of guns is the goal, even with a few caveats, a group called Palmetto Gun Rights is attacking senators on social media with memes. One shows Republican Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey shooting “constitutional carry” then turning around and asking “why did the House kill constitutional carry?”

“We are tired of the compromises. We are tired of waiting, we are tired of backroom deals, and we are tired of South Carolina Republicans circling the wagons around their colleagues weakening good bills so that weaker members get to vote on them and pretend that they are pro-gun,” the group's executive director, Tommy Dimsdale, said in a video.

Palmetto Gun Rights said it believes in “100% firearms liberty” and is an affiliate of the National Association for Gun Rights.

The bill had a tougher fight than might be expected from the start. Some conservatives are torn by the weight of a number of law enforcement leaders who want to maintain training for people to carry guns in public and worry about officers encountering armed people at shooting scenes, having to assess who is a threat and who is trying to help.

To get law enforcement to at least remain neutral, the House added something they sought — a proposal that would create a state crime for a felon to possess a weapon, with penalties similar to federal law.

It is one of Gov. Henry McMaster’s top priorities, with supporters saying it would allow longer prison time for repeat offenders when federal prosecutors don’t want to get involved. But this too is threatened with the House's rejection of the Senate's version.

“The public is losing confidence. So am I,” the governor wrote. He put the blame squarely on the South Carolina House, saying last week that representatives are keeping “the ‘revolving door’ for career violent criminals wide open.”