COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Since this year’s legislative session began in January, Rep. Brandon Guffey, a Republican from York County, has fastened a black lapel pin to his suit jacket every day.
On it is a symbol: <3, how someone might send a heart via text message, especially in the pre-emoji world.
“It’s the text my son sent out to many of his friends before he took his life,” Guffey said.
That was the night of July 27, 2022, when Guffey’s oldest son Gavin, 17-years-old and a recent high-school graduate, died by suicide.
“He loved art and cooking and skating,” Guffey said. “What I loved about him was, he’s his own person. He didn’t change for anyone.”
A few days later, Guffey said they found out what preceded Gavin’s death: Just hours before, someone posing as a college volleyball player reached out to Gavin, coerced him into sending intimate photos of himself, and then tried to extort him for money.
The first bill Guffey filed as a House member after winning his seat last November would make that crime, called sexual extortion or “sextortion,” punishable by up to 30 years in prison in South Carolina.
“Whenever everything happened with my son, I wanted to step away and just bow out,” Guffey said. “My wife said, ‘No, absolutely not. You’re one of the few people that actually can make a change and can protect children. You’ve got a purpose, and you’ve got to be there as long as you can.’”
Last December, the FBI issued a national public safety alert because of an “explosion of incidents” involving kids and teens in financial sextortion schemes.
It reported more than 3,000 minors were targeted in 2022 across the country, mainly boys. But those were just the reported incidents and likely just a small fraction.
On Wednesday, Guffey appeared before a panel of his House colleagues, testifying before their subcommittee on behalf of his bill, H.3583.
“Criminals are coming into the bedroom while you’re at home, and you have no clue, and they’re targeting our children,” Guffey told them.
The criminals in many sextortion incidents are from outside the US, according to the FBI.
So Guffey said to really crack down, the federal government and tech and social media companies need to take a tougher stance on sextortion.
But he said at the very least, passing this bill would bring more awareness of how widespread this issue is and encourage families to talk with each other about it.
“I feel like I’m making a difference, and it’s the only — it’s the only good that I can get out of losing my son,” Guffey said.
His bill cleared its first hurdle Wednesday, advancing out of a House subcommittee and to the full House Judiciary Committee.
So far, it has more than 50 co-sponsors from both parties, and each time someone new signs on, Guffey gives them one of his heart pins.
“I want to start the conversation,” Guffey said. “The most important thing about this bill is raising the awareness of what an issue that this is.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available.
Call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or go to 988lifeline.org.
It’s free, and help is available 24-7.
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