COLUMBIA, S.C. — Felony charges are appropriate against a South Carolina congressman who pulled out his own loaded handgun during a meeting with constituents to make a point about gun safety, the chairman of the state's Democratic Party said on Monday.
In a letter, Chairman Trav Robertson asked state police to open an investigation of U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman for placing a .38-caliber gun on a table during a meeting last week at a Rock Hill restaurant. Robertson also wrote to a local prosecutor, saying Norman should be charged with unlawfully presenting his firearm, citing a state statute that makes it "unlawful for a person to present or point at another person a loaded or unloaded firearm."
"If it were any other person, they would have been arrested," Robertson told The Associated Press on Monday. "It was just stupid of him to do. He was just trying to prove that he was a big shot."
Later Monday, Solicitor Kevin Brackett said he couldn't take the case because of a "personal friendship" with Norman, who has been a businessman and politician in the same area for years. Brackett added that Attorney General Alan Wilson could pursue it if he "deems it appropriate." But he also went on to say that he didn't think Norman broke any laws.
"I do not believe there was any criminal intent on the part of Congressman Norman and while some have reasonably questioned the wisdom of displaying a firearm under these circumstances this does not a crime make," Brackett replied to Robertson in a letter distributed to reporters.
On his Facebook page, Norman wrote Saturday, "I safely placed my gun on the table, pointed away from people, and made the point: 'Guns don't shoot people. People use guns to shoot people. I am tired of blame being placed on the police, NRA, and guns themselves.'"
No one said they felt threatened, Norman wrote, adding that he and participants "laughed, smiled, shook hands and snapped pictures together" at the end of the discussion. Norman also called it "sad and disappointing that national gun control groups stoop to this sort of backhanded tactic to push their radical agenda."
As news of the incident circulated late last week, Norman told local outlets that he wasn't going to be "a Gabby Giffords," referring to the former Arizona congresswoman shot outside a grocery store during a constituent gathering in 2011. Giffords' husband, retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, said in a statement that Norman is "no Gabby Giffords" and noted that his wife has dedicated her life to ending gun violence.
"Americans are increasingly faced with a stark choice: leaders like Gabby, who work hard together to find solutions to problems, or extremists like the NRA and Congressman Norman, who rely on intimidation tactics and perpetuating fear," Kelly said.
Norman has said that he'll display his gun at future constituent meetings. Jessica T. Cahill, a spokesman for Norman, called the episode "a Democrat stunt." Speaking with reporters in Indian Land on Monday, Norman said he welcomed the state police probe "or anything they have."
Archie Parnell, a Democrat hoping to unseat Norman this fall, has used the incident as a fundraising vehicle, asking for donations to help kick the Republican out and avoid more "irresponsible stunts." Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said he expected both Parnell and Norman to spin the episode for their own purposes.
"I expect both candidates to reap fundraising rewards from this," he told the AP.