The relentless episodes of gun violence in the U.S. — 24 mass shootings so far this month alone, according to the Gun Violence Archive — has provoked some in the Lowcountry to tackle the problem head-on.
Gun Sense SC was founded 18 months ago by Meghan Alexander shortly after the deadly shootings at Emanuel AME Church. This week, it named a new chairman and set a new course for its advocacy.
The Rev. Kylon Middleton, pastor of Mt. Zion AME Church and the best friend of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was one of nine killed in the mass shooting on June 17, 2015, at Emanuel AME Church, has taken the reins of the group, which has been renamed Arm in Arm.
Middleton is quick to point out that he has served in the Air Force and has a license to carry a concealed firearm. Alexander, too, insists that the organization welcomes gun owners like her who recognize a problem and want to address it without infringing on Second Amendment rights.
“Gun owners are missing from the conversation,” Alexander said.
“Eighty percent of South Carolinians support common-sense gun reform,” Alexander said, citing a 2015 Winthrop University poll. “We need to reach this silent majority."
Concern is widespread. South Carolina has the fifth-highest rate of gun-related homicides, and it ranks second nationally in aggravated assault with a gun, according to the Center for American Progress. From 2014 to 2016 in the state, 56 children, 131 teens and 23 police officers were killed or injured in shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Nationally, nearly 100 Americans die from gun violence every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The number of guns in circulation has increased dramatically in recent decades to about 300 million, and gun manufacturers produced nearly 11 million weapons in 2013, about twice as many as they did in 2010, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
For organizations like Arm in Arm, the low-hanging fruit appears to be background checks, which a majority of Americans — 85 percent — want to see expanded for all private gun sales and gun show sales, according to a 2016 Pew Research poll.
With Middleton in place as chairman, the organization is defining an action plan. Its goal is to work toward incremental change, convincing lawmakers to adopt policies that are widely embraced by the public, such as more rigorous background checks and, eventually, the establishment of safe zones and curbs on certain assault-style weapons.
At a press conference Monday, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said the issue is polarizing but that action is required to improve public safety.
“Easy access to illegal guns by people who are prohibited from possessing them put my officers and the community in danger on a daily basis,” he said. “We only want to prevent those who are prohibited under current law from possessing firearms.”
Mullen said he supports extending the time for conducting background checks, and he wants criminal justice sentencing reform so existing laws are easier to enforce, perpetrators are easier to punish and sentences are commensurate with the crime.
Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, said he welcomes the effort. Malloy, a gun owner, is an attorney who represented the Pinckney family. He pre-filed a bill in December to extend the background check waiting period from three to 28 days.
“It’s my main priority,” he said. “(Better) background checks are the most logical place to start, particularly on heels of Mother Emanuel.”
Gerald Stoudemire, president of Gun Owners of South Carolina, an affiliate of the National Rifle Association, said he opposes the proposed 28-day wait period because it imposes a burden on gun sellers who can’t complete the transaction for nearly a month.
“I really don’t see daylight for that bill,” Stoudemire said. “It’s a feel-good law that would only burden law-abiding citizens.” Besides, he said, it would circumvent federal law.
Lt. Gov. Kevin L. Bryant, R-Anderson said he is not likely to be convinced that any new gun restrictions are a good idea.
“As a general principle, I’ve always had the position that Second Amendment rights applies to everyone unless you do something to remove it,” Bryant said. “I don’t believe the concealed weapons permit is constitutional. You have to ask state government for permission for something the constitution grants.”
He recently submitted a bill to make the concealed weapons permit optional, he said. Bryant also opposes background checks on constitutional grounds: “When I read the Second Amendment, I haven’t found background checks in there.”
There are 25 gun-related bills currently pending in the Senate and House.
Some, like Malloy’s, call for modest restrictions; others, such as Bryant’s, seek to expand gun rights. One bill would authorize school personnel to bear arms. Another would require a national instant background check before any gun could be sold. Another calls for graduated penalties imposed on repeat offenders.
Middleton said Arm in Arm has organized “Stand Up Sunday,” planned for this Sunday, during which church pastors and congregations in the Charleston area will cite gun violence as a theme, honoring victims, emphasizing scriptural passages about love and healing, and distributing information about how worshipers can reach lawmakers and push for change. Non-Christians are invited to do the same.
“Going forward we will talk with anyone, listen to everyone,” Middleton said.