“Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher said, “If you want to get something done, give it to a woman.” Perhaps, if you want to get something done quickly, find a frightened mom.
It took only 87 days after a failed shooting at Ashley Hall school in Charleston for a gun ownership bill to get to Governor Nikki Haley’s desk, accomplishing what the U.S. Senate could not.
That’s no small accomplishment in a state where the right to own a gun is also considered a rite of passage.
This background check bill that passed in the red state of South Carolina was driven by a small group of Charleston moms who knew little about the legislative process until a woman deemed dangerous carried a loaded gun into a school.
When Alice Boland of Hilton Head tried to fire a loaded handgun at the heads of two Ashley Hall staffers on February 4 and it would not discharge, the incident ended there– and safely.
Anna Murray sat outside the school waiting to pick up daughter and wondered what all the commotion was about. She learned of the threat through a school text alert. A massacre of school children in Newtown, Connecticut was still in the minds of every parent, who were relieved beyond emotion that the attempted shooting had failed.
But in the following days, the Ashley Hall parents discovered that Boland should not have owned a gun, that she once threatened President George W. Bush and had been deemed “not guilty due to mental insanity” long before she was able to buy her weapon in South Carolina. A person who the court has ruled to be “mentally incapacitated” or committed to a mental institution is prohibited from owning or buying a handgun.
That revelation began what became a three-month process to pass South Carolina House Bill 3560, which simply reinforces an existing gun law for background check reporting in the case of mentally incapacitated people.
According to Senator Greg Gregory (R-Lancaster) bill sponsors were partly driven by a deadline of May 17 to get $1 million in federal money to help the state get caught up on the backlog from years of unreported cases. Gregory says the more convincing argument was the moms themselves:
“The point that they come from is having a gun pointed at their children’s face that could have been loaded so that obviously made them very dedicated to this cause and they have not been willing to accept ‘no’ as an answer from anybody here. They have been relentless as one needs to be in order to get a difficult bill passed.”
State Attorney General Alan Wilson backed the idea of the bill before it was even written. Thursday, he responded to the bill’s passage:
“This bill in no way infringes on the rights of law-abiding South Carolinians like myself who legally own guns. It simply ensures that people who are not lawfully allowed to carry a gun cannot get one. It also enables those who have recovered from their mental illness and are no longer a danger to themselves or their community to fully regain their Second Amendment rights.
“An important civics lesson can be learned from this bill and how Ashley Hall parents such as Anna Murray and many others who set an example for citizens can effectively come together to make our state a safer place to live, work, and raise a family,” said Wilson
Ashley Hall is a higher-priced private school in a city and state built on family connections. Did that work in their favor? No and yes, said Murray.
“Relationships do matter, but I will say that I did not know anyone up here (Columbia) when I first started this a couple of months ago and most of the others that worked with me did not know anyone up here. I’m not from South Carolina and I don’t have roots and family connections, but I came up here and walked the halls and stood outside the chambers and developed relationships and some of these people will now be my friends for a very long time,” she said. “Those relationships are the ones that mattered.”
Murray added, “If it takes a higher-profile school for this almost tragedy to have happened to get something like this done, for the sake all of the other schools out there that are equally as important as ours, then I’ll take it.”
Murray said she and the other parents are deeply gratified by the support they got at all levels. In the Senate, gun ownership advocate Lee Bright tried to stymie the bill, worried about citizens too easily losing a constitutional right and not being able to regain it. Though the bill offered a remedy, Bright told South Carolina Radio Network he believes the federal government is getting closer every day to taking away citizen’s guns.
Murray says that struggle taught her about the nuances of legislating: “There are always bits and pieces, words here and there that people get hung up on and its understandable and that’s the process and it’s important. We had to work through that. There were a couple of obstructionists and they tried very hard to stand in the way of something that almost everyone agreed on,” she says.
Lawmakers said the bill was easy to support because it was not driven by anger. Murray, who revealed that she has had family experience with schizophrenia, says Alice Boland was also a victim because the courts should have reported her case.
“She is a victim of South Carolina not enforcing the laws, because she shouldn’t have been able to walk into that gun shop and buy a gun. And if she hadn’t been able to, if she’d been turned away, then the family would be seeking treatment privately. Instead she’s in jail, and maybe for a very, very long time. And her family has gotten a lot of publicity and probably feel like they are full of shame —and they shouldn’t.”