Can you keep a loaded gun in your car in SC? Here’s what the law and officials say

In less than two months, two shootings involving handguns taken from stolen pickup trucks have led to teenagers being shot by Richland County deputies.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said juveniles with guns and people leaving firearms in their cars were common denominators in the recent shootings. They also have led to a host of other crimes in Columbia.

“That’s probably one of the biggest problems we’ve got, is young people going through neighborhoods at night and going through unlocked vehicles, then finding guns,” Lott said. “And then those guns end up on the street used in other crimes.”

In South Carolina, it’s no longer illegal to leave a loaded gun in an unlocked, unattended vehicle.

Before March, gun owners — even those with permits — were required to secure their guns in a closed glove box, center console, trunk or secure container. In March, the General Assembly passed a law that permits people in South Carolina to openly carry handguns without a permit.

Now, there are no restrictions on legal gun owners keeping firearms in their cars in South Carolina, according to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s Constitutional Carry Guidance. Loaded guns can be stored openly or concealed anywhere in the vehicle. They can also be left unattended.

Gun owners are still required to secure their weapons in an attended or locked vehicle when on property owned by a school, according to the nonprofit Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Gun laws in the rest of the South vary by city and state. In North Carolina, you can openly display a gun in your vehicle or keep it somewhere inaccessible to passengers like in the trunk or a locked glove box. However, you need a concealed weapons permit to store it under your seat or in an unlocked glove compartment, according to King Law, a law firm servicing western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina.

In Tennessee, a gun needs to be kept out of sight if the person is in the vehicle and securely locked away if the vehicle is unattended, according to Giffords Law Center.

Georgia law permits gun owners to openly carry a gun in their vehicle, according to Giffords Law Center. But Savannah recently passed an ordinance that requires people to secure their guns when leaving a car unattended and to lock the car itself, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. It’s the first city in the state to pass such an ordinance.

Both of the recent local incidents of youths stealing guns from trucks left teens injured.

The first incident happened in March after two teenagers stole a pickup truck from a South Kilbourne neighborhood. Both of the teens were armed, with one of them using a handgun taken from the stolen truck. A shootout ensued between law enforcement and the teens, and 17-year-old Jeremy Taylor was shot and taken to the hospital for his injuries. A K9 was also shot and wounded.

The second incident on April 28 followed a similar sequence of events. A 15-year-old, whose name was not released because he’s a juvenile, stole a pickup truck from a convenience store in the town of Lexington. The keys to the truck and a handgun had been left inside the vehicle. The teen later picked up two other teenagers in the truck. A car chase ensued when law enforcement spotted the stolen vehicle and was followed by a chase on foot. An unnamed 16-year-old raised a handgun taken from the stolen truck at K9 specialist Cody Sox, who shot the teen, striking him several times. The 16-year-old was taken to the hospital and is expected to recover.

Gun thefts on the rise

The recent incidents are part of a larger issue, data shows. Gun thefts from cars have rapidly increased over the past few years, according to Everytown, a nonprofit that advocates for gun safety. An analysis of FBI data collected from 2011 to 2020 shows that a decade ago, less than a quarter of gun thefts were from cars. Now, guns stolen from cars make up over half of all gun thefts in the United States. An average of at least one gun is stolen from a car every 15 minutes, according to Everytown.

The problem is particularly bad in Columbia. The city has the third highest rate of gun thefts from cars in the country, Everytown’s research shows.

The ability for guns to be stolen from cars makes it easier for people not legally allowed to carry guns, like juveniles, to access firearms. In turn, this can increase the frequency of young people being involved in gun violence.

“That’s where most of our young people get their guns–originally they stole it from somebody’s car that’s usually not even locked,” Lott said.

South Carolina is one of only 17 states with legislation requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns, according to Everytown.

If a gun is lost or stolen in Columbia, the owner is legally required to report the theft within 24 hours of discovery, according to the City of Columbia Ordinance No. 2022-080, which amended the 1998 Code of Ordinances.

If the gun owner fails to report the theft, they could be charged a fine equaling $500 per stolen firearm.

Lott said he doesn’t think the ordinance has done much to prevent guns from being stolen and used in violent crimes. He emphasized gun owners keeping guns out of their cars entirely, regardless of what the law says.

“Your vehicle is not a holster, so you shouldn’t keep your gun in it,” he said.

If people do choose to leave guns in their car, they should keep them locked in the back of their trunk, Lott said.

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