The City of Charleston is looking to amend a number of ordinances to better maintain public safety during public demonstrations in light of the state’s passage of new open carry rules that will take effect Aug. 15 and the growing number of permits the city has issued for parades and protests in the last year.
“We want to ensure that people are able to exercise their First Amendment rights, but in doing that, we want to make sure we maintain order and safety and use and enjoyment of all public areas for those who may not be engaged in that activity,” Charleston’s assistant corporation counsel Steve Ruemelin said during a July 19 joint meeting of the city’s public safety and recreation commissions.
Four amendments to the city code essentially boil down to one sweeping change: if you’re going to an event in the city, you will not be allowed to openly carry firearms at that event. Further changes to language in other ordinances were made to better reflect and support this. Ruemelin said the city wanted to prepare for the implementation of the state’s Open Carry With Training Act, which gives municipalities the authority to restrict the open carry of firearms at public events in the city’s jurisdiction.
“A parade, for example, is supposed to be a family event, and you don’t want anything bad to happen to folks out there,” Public Safety Commission chairman Peter Shahid told the City Paper. “And of course, when you have protests, in a lot of cases, you have counter protests, and emotions get kind of high. We just wanted to make sure everyone was covered and protected.”
Shahid points to last year’s summer protests and violence as the most obvious example of what the city is looking at when drafting these changes. And while he said he can’t be sure that people carrying arms in public will be any more prevalent with the state law, he says this is a common-sense measure aimed at preventing further violence.
The impact of the state’s new open-carry measure is compounded by gun sales which spiked over the course of last year, coinciding with ongoing high-stakes social justice demonstrations and the presidential election.
FBI records for South Carolina show the number of background checks associated with firearm purchases steadily climbed through the pandemic, reaching a peak of 55,636 checks in June 2020. That peak was already surpassed this year, with 55,773 checks in March 2021.
Background checks aren’t an entirely accurate measure of gun sales, since some checks are denied, but they are an indication of buying interest.
“There are many other people out there like me that practice good, proper gun safety, but when we have an event that could have two polar opposite groups out there protesting, it just isn’t a good idea to have a weapon out there,” City Councilman Harry Griffin said during the July 19 meeting. “I hope that our citizens see that this is a common-sense approach to making sure that everybody stays safe while you exercise that freedom of assembly.”
The changes were unanimously supported by the Public Safety Commission and passed first reading at a subsequent City Council meeting on July 20. During the meeting, only one community spoke to the changes, claiming that they were unconstitutional.
And some advocates fear that the ordinance will only be disarming one side. Marcus McDonald, leader of Charleston Black Lives Matter, said that during protests he’s attended, counter-protesters have brandished or flashed firearms at him and his colleagues. And he said he isn’t confident in local law enforcement to keep everyone on an even playing field.
“White people who are not involved in our protests — I think they’ll get away with it like they always do,” he said. “If it’s somebody on our side, they’re going to crack down on it ASAP. As far as enforcement, I think it’s going to be one-sided. The laws have never been applied fairly with protesting, and this is just going to be another instance of that.”
McDonald said that having their rights restricted on carrying guns at such protests could even make them less safe, and when viewed in a historical context, could do more harm than good for their message.
“A lot of people don’t want peace, they want submission,” he said. “That’s not what we’re about. We are about nonviolence, but we stand up for what we believe in. This is just one of those things where they’re really adamant about adding this legislation to make us more submissive, and we just aren’t going for it.”
Those with concealed weapons permits would still be able to carry their weapons on them at public events, just not openly, Charleston Police chief Luther Reynolds explained. And with the way the city has defined a demonstration, modeling it after federal laws and regulations, a demonstration is any public event exercising one’s First Amendment rights, and it can be as large as possible or as small as a single person.
City officials said they didn’t foresee any problems with these changes from event organizers, who they said previously asked for similar measures. Both meetings were recorded and can be watched on the City of Charleston’s YouTube channel.