Boy, 16, charged with murder in North Charleston shooting in N. Charleston (copy)

Officers at scene of a shooting on Read Street in North Charleston in March 2016. File/Staff

On an average week between 1999 and 2014, a dozen people were fatally shot in South Carolina. Nearly 10,000 lives were lost to homicides, suicides and accidents involving guns.

Then, in 2015, 16 died every week — 841 by the year's end — the highest toll of gun deaths for the Palmetto State since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started tracking it.

The problem appears to have worsened since then, with some police agencies in the Lowcountry, the Grand Strand and the Midlands reporting a marked rise in violence.

With 35 homicides carried out with a gun in the first half of the year, for instance, the Charleston region is on track for its deadliest year in recent memory. North Charleston has accounted for 20 of them.

"It's a sad state of affairs," the city's mayor, Keith Summey, said Thursday in a Facebook video, urging parents to report children they suspect of dealing drugs. "The number of guns on the street these days is astronomical."

The spike mirrors a trend nationwide as many cities struggle to come up with ways to stem the body count. But South Carolina's rate of 7.4 firearm homicides per 100,000 residents in 2015 surpassed the national average of 4 and made it the seventh most violent state in the United States.

Advocates, alarmed by the data, have floated policy proposals they expect to garner bipartisan support. 

Some lawmakers, though, say the violence might remain a fact of life here. New laws can do little to change the people who misuse guns, said Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, a Republican from Murrells Inlet.

"This is a heart problem," he said. "You're not going to fix the problem until you fix people's hearts. ... If you take their guns away, they're just going to run you over with cars or stab you with knives."

But Megan Alexander, founder of the statewide advocacy group Arm in Arm, thinks there's middle ground between responsible gun owners and supporters of stricter laws.

"The statistics are overwhelming," she said. "I don't think we can ignore them anymore."

'An awakening'

Two, three or four gunshot victims showing up at Medical University Hospital in downtown Charleston is becoming an ordinary night for Dr. Ashley Hink, a surgery resident.

The steady stream of patients there and at other trauma centers nationwide has been eye-opening for doctors, she said. Physicians have educated patients about disease, car crashes and smoking, she said, so why not gun violence?

"Here we were taking care of victim after victim of firearm violence," she said, "and very few were asking what was putting these people at risk."

Treating gun crime as a public health dilemma has started to change that, Hink said. Doctors are counseling people on proper firearm storage, signs of suicide and crime risk factors. Young victims can be more receptive to such discussion with doctors than with police officers, she said.

"There's been an awakening for us," Hink said. "People are dying. We have to do something."

Guns are being used more often in slayings.

Shootings accounted for 86 percent of all homicides in 2016 and 90 percent in the opening half of 2017 in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, a Post and Courier database shows. That compares with an overall average since 2001 of 78 percent.

Charleston County also was the deadliest in the state for gun homicides in 2015, according to the CDC. Historically, its rate of 11.8 shooting deaths per 100,000 residents was second only to 2006, when it was 12.5.

But when fewer killings involve guns, homicides tend to drop altogether.

The most tranquil year so far this century in the tri-county area was 2004, when 27 homicides were recorded.

Only 56 percent were shootings.

'Access to firearms'

For Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook, homicides are just one indicator of the problem.

Richland County saw 7.9 slayings with a gun per 100,000 residents in 2015, its highest rate since 2007, the CDC data show.

The Richland County Sheriff's Department saw a spike from 13 shooting deaths in 2015 to 20 last year, Lt. Curtis Wilson said.

Fatal shootings in the capital city actually dipped from 12 that year to nine in 2016. But 145 people last year were at least wounded by gunfire in assaults, suicides and accidents, Holbrook said.

That's troublesome, but Holbrook and others in the Midlands have devised programs to do something about it, he said.

"Real-Time Reentry" and "Ceasefire Columbia" are collaborations between federal authorities, state agencies and local police that confront past offenders about the consequences of being found with a gun. If felons are caught, Holbrook said, local officers notify authorities to seek federal charges that carry hefty prison time.

State laws are more forgiving to those jailed on gun charges. But police chiefs broadly support state legislation that would boost punishment for offenders each time they're convicted of having guns.

"I don't think there's any denying that we have considerable access to firearms in South Carolina," Holbrook said. "There's ample opportunity to possess a firearm, and the punitive ramifications are not that great."

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Fourth Avenue North and Ocean Boulevard has been the location of several shootings in Myrtle Beach. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Gunfire also is a familiar visitor in Horry County, where a recent Facebook video of a Myrtle Beach shootout that wounded seven went viral. The county's gun homicide rate hit 6.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015, the first time the CDC tabulated it.

Officers of the Horry County Police Department have noticed the persistent violence, but no one can pinpoint a cause, spokeswoman Krystal Dotson said. The number of crimes involving guns in the first six months of the year went up from 50 in 2015, 70 in 2016 and 71 this year, Dotson said.

"Obviously, there is an increase," she said. "We're just making sure we have the resources, the training and the visibility to ensure the public we are doing our best to control the violence."

How to solve the problem

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon is among a group of law enforcement officials, including former FBI Director James Comey, that thinks incessant criticism of police has partially driven the mayhem.

American officers who fear unfair scrutiny are reluctant to take proactive steps that prevent crime, Cannon said. Criminals see that, he said, and are taking advantage.

But it's "ludicrous," he said, to think stricter gun laws would effectively target those criminals.

"When you get focused on the gun rather than on what's motivating the person to use it," Cannon said, "you're never going to solve the problem."

Goldfinch, the Grand Strand Republican, thinks there is some room for improvement of existing laws.

One Senate bill, which finished the last legislative session in subcommittee, would shorten from 30 days to 10 the time court clerks have to report criminal case resolutions for use in the federal background check system. Other court orders barring firearm ownership must be forwarded within two days.

The hope is that people restricted from getting guns won't fall through the cracks because of reporting delays.

Some clerks, though, have voiced concerns.

Charleston County Clerk of Court Julie Armstrong said her office has no problem meeting current requirements, but the bill would make it more difficult. Some tweaks could ease the burden, she said.

"Is it a solve-all? Nope," said Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Democrat from Charleston sponsoring the bill. "But this is something that I think will help."

The caveat for other lawmakers, though, is a provision extending the waiting period for gun purchases from three days to five. That sours many to the proposal, Goldfinch said.

"It would just put another inhibition on the legal gun owners," he said.

But Peter Zalka, a Charleston retiree, called the measure "low-hanging fruit" in the broader scheme of gun control.

Zalka got involved with Arm in Arm, the self-professed moderate advocacy group, after a mass shooting in 2015 killed nine worshippers at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church. He later took control of it.

"Nobody feels there is one answer that is going to solve the problem," he said. "But if there's one answer that will solve part of the problem, why not do it?"

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Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the Quick Response Team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.