State Supreme Court rules the age for possession should be lowered
By RICK BRUNDRETT - [email protected]
Youths ages 18 through 20 can possess handguns legally under a state Supreme Court ruling issued Monday.
The unanimous decision mirrors a new state law that took effect last month.
The five-member high court said the old law violated the state constitution, which grants full legal rights to everyone who is at least 18 — with the exception of alcohol purchases.
“By expressly allowing the regulation of the sale of alcoholic beverages to the 18-to-20-year-old age group and not stating any other situation in which the General Assembly may restrict the rights of this age group, the state constitution precludes the General Assembly from prohibiting this age group’s possession of handguns,” Justice James Moore wrote for the court.
The state Attorney General’s Office, in court papers, supported the old law.
“Certainly if it is appropriate for the Legislature to stop a 19-year-old from having a Heineken, it is also appropriate under the same power to prohibit that same 19-year-old from having a Glock 9mm semi-automatic pistol,” according to a legal brief submitted for the appeal.
Attorney General Henry McMaster said Monday the court’s ruling “means that those in jail on that charge will be able to ask to be released.” But he added he believes those cases are “far and few between.”
McMaster said his office will “need to study the decision” before deciding whether to ask the court to reconsider its ruling.
State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, who authored the new law allowing handgun possession by those who are least 18, said Monday that South Carolina was the only southern state to have the higher age limit.
“I see it as a self-defense issue,” he said.
He said if his daughter, when she was 19 or 20, was driving his car, which had a gun in the glove compartment, she could have been charged under the old law even though it would have been legal for him.
Although the new law lowers the age for legal possession, it doesn’t trump federal law banning those younger than 21 from buying handguns, Pitts said.
Violation of the old state law was a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $2,000 fine. The Attorney General’s office in court papers said there were “valid policy concerns” supporting handgun limitations.
“Indeed, it is common knowledge that the combination of young people, handguns and gangs creates a particularly toxic mix,” the legal brief said.
Rock Hill lawyer Leland Greeley, who represented the defendant in Monday’s ruling, said the court’s decision might be used to challenge another state law that bans youths under 21 from obtaining concealed weapons permits.
The justices in Monday’s ruling upheld a lower court ruling that threw out a York County indictment charging Berry Scott Bolin with possession of a handgun by someone younger than 21.
Bolin was 19 when he was arrested in connection with the February 2006 shooting death of Bobby Royce Hovis III, 19. Besides the weapons charge, he also was indicted on a charge of murder, though he eventually was convicted of a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 771-8484.