COLUMBIA — Columbia will move forward with repealing a series of gun-control measures after bowing from a court fight with S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson and not wanting a fight with state lawmakers who have the power to fund much-needed city projects.
Columbia, with the backing of then-Mayor Steve Benjamin, passed a series of gun ordinances in 2019 making it illegal to possess firearms within 1,000 feet of a school; allowing gun seizures from people under an extreme risk protection order, commonly known as a “red flag” law; and a rule that added buildings where homemade firearms known as “ghost guns” are constructed to be subject to the city’s nuisance laws.
Wilson sued the city in 2020, arguing that state law preempted local authority on the gun regulations. A Richland County judge sided with Wilson in 2021.
The City Council gave initial approval March 15 to roll back the gun rules in a split vote. Mayor Daniel Rickenmann and council members Aditi Bussells, Howard Duvall and Joe Taylor voted to repeal. Council members Tina Herbert, Ed McDowell and Will Brennan voted against taking the ordinances off of the books.
In explaining the decision before the vote, Rickenmann noted multiple times the court decision and that the city can’t enforce the measures.
Herbert pushed back at any characterization the city had lost in court, having city attorney Teresa Knox confirm the city had withdrawn its appeal. Court records show the appeal was withdrawn March 15, the day of the vote.
Herbert told The Post and Courier that she voted against repealing the ordinances because there was a chance an appeal for at least certain aspects of the ordinances and that she didn’t agree with a blanket repeal.
With a decision on the appeal looming, council members deferred an initial scheduled vote March 1. At the time, Duvall said the city could consider new rules aimed at limiting gun violence that would stand up in court and replace the previous guidelines.
State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a Columbia Republican and member of the House budget-writing committee, said he urged a city lobbyist and some council members to outright repeal the rules after the deferred vote or risk jeopardizing his ability to secure backing for $170 million the city requested from lawmakers for a number of projects.
At the top of the list is a $35 million request to fix train crossings that can snarl traffic around downtown.
Finlay told The Post and Courier that he and other lawmakers had received an e-blast from the National Rifle Association worried about the city’s deferred decision on the gun-control ordinances. Having to defend funneling state money to the city to his colleagues in the GOP-controlled General Assembly while Columbia continues pushing for gun rules that conflict with state law would be futile, Finlay said.
Finlay has proposed a bill in the House that would allow the state to withhold money for municipalities that do n0t follow state law.
“My point being, ‘Guys, if you have this on your books, and you aren’t trying to take it off — and in fact you’re trying to redo it and get around the ruling — you’re going to make it very difficult, if not impossible, for me…to help you,’ ” Finlay said.
Rickenmann said ahead of the March 15 decision that city officials remain committed to funding crime and gun violence prevention efforts, noting the federal COVID-19 relief money the city allocated to public safety initiatives.
Multiple residents expressed concerns to council members about rolling back gun regulations at a time when shootings continue to occur and guns remain accessible.
“We’re not going to stop protecting you, I promise,” Rickenmann said in response to one speaker.
Bussells, who has a doctorate in public health whose thesis was written on gun violence, agreed with a speaker who called the issue one of public health and that the city would continue to pursue effective methods of reducing the crime.
A city ordnance passed in 2017 banning the use of bump stocks, attachments that can increase the firing rate of semi-automatic guns, remains on the books. In response to state law makers legalizing open carry of guns in South Carolina, the city passed a rule prohibiting open carry at public events, parks and government buildings.
Duvall said he is still hopeful the city can revisit local rules aimed at gun violence after current rules are gone. Repealing the ordinances requires a second vote that could come during the next meeting April 5.
Reach Stephen Fastenau at 803-365-3235. Follow him on Twitter @StephenFastenau.
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