Charleston unlikely to be tipping point in debate over guns, mass killings

A Charleston police officer, gun drawn, approaches the entrance of Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston on Wednesday night after a gunman killed the pastor and eight parishioners in what authorities have called a hate crime. All of the white gunman’s victims were black.

The day after an avowed white supremacist gunned down a pastor and eight others at a prayer meeting at a historic black church in Charleston, a downcast President Barack Obama addressed a nation shocked by another mass killing.

“We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun,” the president said Thursday from the James Brady Press Briefing Room, a small White House theater named for the press secretary who was shot and disabled in the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

According to the White House, it was at least the 14th time Obama has responded to a mass shooting during his presidency.

After 26 children and educators were killed by a lone gunman at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in 2012, Obama, parents of the victims and many others believed it would force Congress and state lawmakers to pass strict gun controls.

It didn’t happen, primarily because of opposition by the National Rifle Association and other proponents of Second Amendment rights. A few states tightened gun controls, but the only major change to come out of the Newtown shooting was more armed police officers in local schools, including elementary schools.

Even Obama seemed pessimistic in his televised speech that the slayings of nine clergy and parishioners inside Emanuel AME Church in the heart of Charleston would result in new firearms regulations nationally or in South Carolina

“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Obama said. “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.”

David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard University and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, said that based on 2010 data, the rate of gun homicides in the U.S. was 25 times higher than in other wealthy nations, all of which have stricter gun regulations.

“I teach in public health, and many of the students are from developed countries around the world, and they just don’t understand why we allow this,” he said. “In other countries, children do not have to go to schools with armed guards.”

Hemenway said mass shootings get people’s attention, but every day in the U.S. more than 90 people are killed with guns and hundreds injured. To change that, he said, there needs to be a societal shift in attitudes, as there was with drinking and driving, smoking, seat belt use and even littering.

Gun rights advocates take the opposite view — there aren’t too many guns, there are too few in the hands of the right people.

The pro-Second Amendment group 2AO called on its 160,000 members to provide gun training and safety awareness in their church communities “in order to protect themselves and their fellow parishioners from the potential of both foreign and domestic terrorist attacks.”

“This is a time to exercise our Second Amendment right to protect ourselves, our families, and our religious communities,” said 2AO president Bryan Crosswhite.

In its response to the church killings, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence called for “sensible solutions that just keep guns out of the wrong hands.”

The group listed expanding background checks on all gun sales “and shutting down the small number of ‘bad apple’ gun dealers that supply almost all crime guns.”

Some in the pro-gun community have suggested that Emanuel AME Church pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the shooting, bore some responsibility because he had voted against a bill that would have allowed carrying a firearm without training and a permit. South Carolina requires a concealed weapons permit for those who want to carry a handgun. Attempts by lawmakers to allow open or concealed carry without a permit have so far been unsuccessful.

According to a Politico report, National Rifle Association board member Charles Cotton said in an online post Thursday that “Innocent people died because of (Pinckney’s) position on a political issue.”

Larry Martin, the Republican chairman of the South Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee, called Cotton’s comments “outrageous.” He said South Carolina’s concealed carry law allows permit holders to carry a gun in church if the church has given authorization. But the law has never allowed permit holders to bring a gun into a church without such permission, he said. The original law, passed in 1996, predates Pinckney’s tenure.

Last year, Martin’s committee rejected a so-called “constitutional carry” bill that would have allowed people to carry guns in public without a permit. But Pinckney was not on that committee and therefore took no vote on it.

This year, Horry County Republican Rep. Alan Clemmons proposed requiring public schools to spend three weeks on the Second Amendment, using material “developed or recommended by the National Rifle Association.” That bill has not progressed beyond a House committee.

Online, the gun-related debate began within hours of the church shootings, and could be seen in comments posted to a story about the crime published Wednesday night on postandcourier.com.

“I believe we can all agree stricter gun laws are in order,” wrote a man from Arkansas. He was wrong — not everyone agreed.

“Guns are important. All good people should have guns,” another man wrote.

A woman from Arizona said, “Too many people have made their gun (their) God.”

“I think people need to go to church armed so they can protect their families,” another woman wrote.

The gun debate played out through more than 400 comments posted to the story about the church shooting. They were scattered among comments expressing condolences and prayers, racist comments, criticisms of the press and politicians, and some suggestions that the church shooting was part of a government conspiracy to take away people’s guns.

The man accused of nine counts of murder in the Charleston church shooter, Dylann Roof, purchased his gun legally, authorities believe.

The state Legislature has passed two significant pieces of legislation addressing gun issues in recent years. The Boland legislation makes it harder for mentally ill people to get guns by creating a database of people deemed by the courts to be incompetent, or people involuntarily sent to a mental institution.

It was named for Alice Boland, 28, who tried to fire a handgun at officials at Ashley Hall school in downtown Charleston in 2013, She pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t go off because no round was in the chamber.

And this year, following an examination by The Post and Courier of domestic violence, lawmakers passed a bill barring convicted abusers from possessing firearms for three years, mirroring the federal ban. In some instances it could be for life.

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden who ran for governor last year and gave an impassioned speech this week about Pinckney, his Senate deskmate, said there are too many unanswered questions about Roof’s motivation and history to propose gun laws.

“It does concern me that you might have a mentally unstable person with easy access to some type of very deadly firearm,” Sheheen said.

Other lawmakers, however, said that despite the tragedy, they see no reason to suddenly alter gun regulations in the state and make it a priority.

“It’s a tragic occurrence, but at the end of the day we live in a violent world,” said state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, a Second Amendment advocate who favors open carry of handguns for all.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.