Airguns, including pellet guns, fall somewhere between firearms and toy guns, depending on the state and municipal laws. While federal law does not classify pellet guns and other air guns as firearms, each state has the right to develop its own laws.
In South Carolina, an airgun is not treated as a firearm, but that doesn't mean that they are totally unregulated. They are considered weapons and subject to restrictions.
What Is a Pellet Gun?
A pellet gun is essentially an air gun that fires hard pellets. The firing mechanism uses compressed air to propel the pellets from the barrel of the gun. The person holding the airgun pulls the trigger to start the chemical reaction that results in the shooting of the pellets.
There are two basic versions of pellet guns available in commerce, pellet rifles and pellet handguns. Neither version fires "real" bullets. Rather, pellet guns fire pellets that are either:
- Spherical plastic pellets.
- Non-spherical plastic pellets.
- Metallic pellets.
BB Pellet Air Rifles
Airguns can also be made to fire darts or arrows. The BB pellet air rifles are considered more accurate than regular BB guns. They also weigh less than regular guns and are quieter, producing little noise when "fired."
These qualities make them appealing to some hunters. They are also used by some for target practice.
Use of Pellet Airguns for Hunting
South Carolina allows air gun hunting for certain animals, including:
- Whitetail Deer.
- Wild Boar.
South Carolina Laws: Airguns as Handguns/Rifles
South Carolina statutes contain some laws regulating firearms, such as handguns, machine guns and rifles. But these state laws do not include airguns in the definition of firearms. Neither the definition of handgun nor the definition of rifle applies to pellet guns or other air guns.
A handgun is defined as "any firearm designed to expel a projectile and designed to be fired from the hand, but shall not include any firearm...that does not fire fixed cartridges." Since airguns do not fire fixed cartridges, they are obviously excluded from all handgun regulations.
The state law also defines "rifle" as a weapon designed to be fired from the shoulder and that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed cartridge to fire only a single projectile through a rifled bore for each single pull of the trigger.
South Carolina Laws: Airguns as Weapons
In addition to laws regulating firearms, South Carolina statutes regulate weapons. This is defined more broadly than handguns and rifles. Article 5 of Title 16 lists "Miscellaneous Offenses" that apply generally to weapons, and the term "weapons" is defined in that statute. Section 16-23-405 defines "weapon" to include:
- Firearm (rifle, shotgun, pistol or similar device that propels a projectile through the energy of an explosive).
- Metal pipe or pole.
- Any other type of device or object which may be used to inflict bodily injury or death.
This definition has been held to be broad enough to include airguns, so all of the restrictions that apply to weapons, apply to pellet airguns in South Carolina.
Pellet Guns at Schools
One weapons restriction in South Carolina discusses carrying or displaying a weapon in public buildings or in areas adjacent to public buildings. South Carolina statute Title 16 makes it illegal to do so without the express permission of the authorities in charge of the property.
These areas include "property owned, operated or controlled by a private or public school, college, university, technical college or other post-secondary institution.”
Penalties for Violation of Weapons Ordinances
What are the penalties for breaking this law? Anyone carrying a weapon, including a pellet gun, onto public property without permission can be charged with a felony. Exceptions apply for those who are authorized to carry a gun under these circumstances, including military personnel and law enforcement officers.
A conviction of this offense can result in a fine of up to $5,000 and/or imprisonment of up to five years. The weapon will be removed from the person's possession, confiscated by law enforcement agencies, sold or destroyed.
Using Pellet Guns in Committing Crimes
Anyone using a pellet airgun when they commit a violent crime will have additional and quite serious sanctions. Section 16-23-490 provides that anyone possessing a firearm or displaying what appears to be a firearm during commission of a violent crime must be imprisoned five years, in addition to the punishment provided for the principal crime.
This five-year sentence is mandatory unless a longer mandatory minimum term of imprisonment is provided by law for the violent crime. The court can impose this five-year sentence to run consecutively or concurrently, and the person convicted is not eligible for parole or work release during this five-year period.
Inclusion of Pellet Guns in Mandatory Sentences
Although this statute on its face applies only to "firearms," note that there is a definition of "firearms" specific to this provision that provides:
"(D) As used in this section, firearm means any machine gun, automatic rifle, revolver, pistol or any weapon which will, or is designed to, or may readily be converted to, expel a projectile."
Since a pellet airgun does expel a projectile, it is included in the definition for this particular section.
Other Pellet Gun Laws in South Carolina
There are several other laws regarding use of a pellet gun in South Carolina. For example, it is a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison for a person to shoot at or into:
In addition, it is a misdemeanor to carry a concealed weapon, including pellet guns, in public. This is true regardless of whether or not the weapon is used in a crime. If convicted, the individual will forfeit their weapon, be fined up to $500 and sent to jail for at least 30 days, but not more than 90 days.
If they carry the pellet gun into a place that serves alcohol, the penalty includes a fine of at least $2,000 and at least three years in prison. These rules do not apply to carrying a pellet gun on their own property.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.