Opinion

Opinion: Showing Your Gun — A New Campaign Strategy?

South Carolina lawmaker’s act may be more than a blip during the midterm season

When Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., pulled out a gun during a meet-and-greet with constituents, it may just be a political sideshow — or it may be something more amidst a volatile midterm election season, Mary C. Curtis writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A U.S. House race in South Carolina may depend on how you define the word “brandish,” as in, what exactly do you call it when Republican Congressman Ralph Normanpulls out his gun in a Rock Hill diner meet-and-greet with constituents?

Though the state’s law enforcement division and attorney general have concluded “this is not a prosecutable offense,” Republicans and Democrats are weighing the political plusses and minuses of the recent event in light of a midterm race that gets more interesting by the day.

Predictably, South Carolina Democrats had called for an investigation, with state party Chairman Trav Robertson saying, “As any truly responsible gun owner knows and as the statute says, if you have a concealed carry permit, you cannot brandish your weapon without an imminent threat.”

On cue, Republicans supported Norman, with South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick tweeting, “So not only do hysterical anti-gun liberals not understand guns are inanimate objects, they don’t know the definition of ‘brandish.’”

Watch: Thousands March on Washington to Protest Inaction on Gun Violence

Different standards

Others recognize that if you were not a “Ralph Norman,” showing your piece in a public place would not end well, a point made by York County deputy public defender B.J. Barrowclough, who said that “none of our clients get the benefit of the doubt. If anyone else, particularly someone of a lower socioeconomic background, did that in a diner in Rock Hill, they’d be in jail right now.”

Despite the drama and social media reaction, Norman should have little trouble in November retaining the 5th District seat he won in a June 2017 special election, replacing Mick Mulvaney, who left Congress to join the Trump team as budget director. But Democrats still have hope.

In that earlier race, Democrat Archie Parnell, a tax attorney with not much money, no political experience and minimal help from the national party — distracted as it was by the high-profile Jon Ossoff pipe dream in neighboring Georgia — came within 3 percentage points and just under 3,000 votes in a district that went for Trump by 19 points the year before.

So far, Parnell’s fundraising is looking good as he makes another try in 2018. He’s likely to be the Democratic candidate. Has the political landscape shifted enough to make a difference in the outcome?

While South Carolina is red, all of the state is not the same. Rock Hill, the home of Winthrop University, is just inside the border with North Carolina. Once known as a place of major civil rights confrontations, including the 1961 brutal beating of movement icon John Lewis and the place to which he returned years later as a congressman to be honored, it is a thriving part of the metropolitan area of Charlotte, about 25 miles to the north.

The 5th District includes suburbs and, despite redistricting that pushed many out, a fair number of African-American voters, many of whom favored Parnell last year.

In the recent diner incident, the members of a local chapter of a national organization called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America were later denounced by Norman on Facebook as a “group with a radical agenda, funded by out-of-state groups, and hell bent on repealing the Second Amendment and banning guns.”

Understandably, the volunteers rejected that characterization.

Lori Freemon, one of the four women — all of whom live in Norman’s district — at the “coffee with constituents” gathering, told The Herald of Rock Hill that the group is nonpartisan.

“We support the Second Amendment. Our group includes gun owners. We don’t want to take people’s guns away,” she said. “We want common sense gun legislation that will keep us safer.”

Veronica Doyle, another Fort Mill mom who attended, said that while her husband is in law enforcement and she is not threatened by guns, “I’ve never encountered something like this” — “this” being Norman’s stunt.

It is one that made national headlines. “I’m not going to be a Gabby Giffords,” Norman said after the meeting, referring to the Arizona congresswoman who was shot in 2011 during a public gathering in Tucson.

‘Courage’

Norman was promptly swatted by Giffords’ husband, retired astronaut and Navy veteran Mark Kelly, who tweeted, “When I think of @GabbyGiffords, I think of courage and public service, not intimidating constituents.”

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake defended his fellow Arizonan, friend and former colleague, tweeting, “To suggest that she might have avoided being shot had she carried a weapon as she spoke to constituents that morning is inappropriate and inconsiderate.”

In defending pulling out his .38-caliber handgun, Norman also said, “I carry a loaded gun, and then I presented it safely to prove a point that guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” which, as everyone knows, has never, ever been said before.

It may just be one of those political sideshows that South Carolina, despite its best efforts, continues to be known for — one that, too, shall pass. But in an increasingly volatile midterm House election picture, one that has Speaker Paul D. Ryandeciding not to run before it’s even May, every blip counts.

Suburban women wearing red T-shirts, even those in South Carolina, might be the voters no party wants to anger.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3

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