WASHINGTON — With the Mother Emanuel AME Church massacre and the shooting of Walter Scott, South Carolinians have, for over a year, been grappling with the legacy of race relations, the question of who can buy a gun and the task of restoring trust between the black community and law enforcement.
These themes are now being debated on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers reeling after: the June 12 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday and Wednesday’s killing of black men by police officers in Baton Rouge, La., and St. Paul, Minn., and Thursday’s slaying of five members of law enforcement in Dallas.
These incidents call out for some sort of federal response, but solutions so far remain elusive. Even members of the South Carolina congressional delegation bound together by the tragedies that have challenged their home state are splintering in their pursuit of government remedies, or the lack of.
In the wake of the Orlando shooting by a self-professed sympathizer of radical Islam, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., signed on to a bipartisan bill to limit gun sales to certain terror suspects. He described the bill as so benign that its failure to pass would prove Congress “truly is broken.” The bill is now in an indefinite holding pattern.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the only Democrat in the South Carolina delegation and the highest ranking black lawmaker in Congress, participated in a 27-hour takeover of the House floor to protest Republicans’ refusal to allow a vote on gun control legislation. Republican leaders came back a week later with a proposal that would limit some gun sales, which Democrats dismissed as insufficient.
Meanwhile, the 40 members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus — who among their members include S.C. GOP Reps. Mark Sanford, Mick Mulvaney and Jeff Duncan — said they would oppose the measure given the lack of due process protections for potential gun owners. GOP leadership pulled the bill.
The events of the past week could offer some common ground for South Carolina lawmakers in connecting the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile with that of Walter Scott, who was shot and killed during a traffic stop in North Charleston. That could be especially true for Clyburn and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only African-American members of the state delegation.
In a press conference Thursday, Clyburn said the tendency to avoid discussions on issues of race in America has contributed to a pattern of horrors. He quoted a long-standing Charleston resident, Rowena Tobias, who once urged him, “don’t stop talking” about the difficult, sensitive subject.
In his statement Friday, Scott said something similar. “It is clear — we must have tough conversations. We must put ourselves in each other’s shoes.”
Meanwhile, House Republicans are reportedly interested in pursuing legislation to address the rampant tension between communities of color and law enforcement agencies. On Friday, Washington State Republican Rep. Dave Reichert, a former sheriff and the leader of a congressional task force on community policing initiatives, told reporters he was meeting early next week with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., at their request, to discuss potential legislation.
Reichert wouldn’t elaborate on what he had in mind for a standalone bill, but he spoke of the importance of training officers, holding them accountable for misconduct, and involving the community in police hiring decisions. He emphasized support for existing federal programs, like the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative — a Department of Justice effort to reduce instances of gun violence. Reichert also said he would continue to lobby for more money for the Community Oriented Policing Services program, or COPS, another initiative run out of the Justice Department that assists law enforcement agencies review their own practices. The North Charleston Police Department earlier this year became one of the newest COPS participants.
The wide-ranging debate in Washington spilled into Charleston on Friday afternoon as activists organized by the National Action Network gathered in Marion Square.
Standing in sweltering heat, they prayed for peace to show solidarity with Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas, and they called for gun control and police reform — from a ban on military-style rifles to civilian review boards overseeing police departments.
And they said they were tired of gathering after police shootings and mass killings as tragedy has visited more cities across the country.
“You’ve got seven families right now that are planning a funeral,” said Charles Tyler, president of the Charleston chapter of the National Action Network, referring to the three incidents this week. “I’m tired of standing up and holding signs and gathering. We have to act.”
Speaking at the gathering, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg referred to the “long list of folks that we’re praying for,” before listing cities like Aurora, Colo., and Sandy Hook, Conn., that had seen shootings in recent years.
“How many times do we have to continue to be exposed to senseless killings in this country?” Tecklenburg said. “I am tired, as you are, of this hatred. We have shown in Charleston that love conquers hate.”
But as they called for action, speakers at the event, which was attended by 100 or so people, said they feared they would be back together before too long if laws and policies don’t change.
“I’m tired of talking,” said Pastor Thomas Dixon, a community activist who is running for U.S. Senate. The gathering, he said, was “nothing but a Kumbaya moment.”
“If we don’t do anything beyond this point with this, we’ve just created another setup for another Kumbaya moment,” Dixon said.
Congressional involvement in state law enforcement affairs might run afoul of the libertarian sensibilities of conservatives like Sanford. He told The Post and Courier he had a “gut wrenching” reaction to the Sterling and Castile videos but ultimately didn’t think there was a role for the federal government to play in determining how local police departments function.
There could also be resistance to legislation that might suggest responsibility lies with police after five of them were killed in the line of duty Thursday night in Dallas. Three Republicans in the South Carolina delegation — Graham, Duncan and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy — did not release statements after the shootings of Sterling and Castile, but did so on Friday after the deaths of the police officers, extolling them as the victims of division and hate.
Reichert also suggested there was interest in shifting the debate from gun control to strengthening community policing initiatives. Democrats, particularly those in the Congressional Black Caucus, are not isolating one issue from the other, and would likely chafe at the suggestion they should give up one fight for another.
CBC members, excluding Clyburn who was absent, gathered on Friday morning in a call for action, condemning the murder of the policemen at the “Black Lives Matter” protest in Dallas, but not neglecting their larger narrative and set of demands.
CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., offered this warning to Republicans: Without action on gun control legislation “this will be a long, hot summer.”