Gun debate continues locally in wake of San Bernardino shooting

People hold candles during a vigil for shooting victims Thursday at San Manuel Stadium in San Bernardino, Calif. A husband and wife opened fire on a holiday banquet, killing multiple people on Wednesday. Hours later, the couple died in a shootout with police. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

As she watched news break about 14 dead in the San Bernardino shooting, Felicia Sanders' body ached with the faltering voice of a father whose daughter had texted him while hiding from the gunmen: “Pray for us. I am locked in an office.”

She cried for the newest members of the tragic tribe of families who have lost loved ones in the nation's ever-mounting toll of mass shootings. She couldn't sleep after watching the news, instead spending hours staring at photographs of her smiling son Tywanza, a 26-year-old whose body she left on the bloody floor of Emanuel AME Church five months ago.

Sanders knows well the shock and terror the California families now face. On June 17, she and her 11-year-old granddaughter played dead while a racist gunman shot dead nine people she knew and loved.

The hardest part of coping today? The ceaseless barrage, day after day, of more mass killings, of more traumatized families crying from her TV and newspaper pages. She prays for them all.

“My heart bleeds. I can relate, because not long ago I been that person,” Sanders said.

Much discussion about the Emanuel AME shooting, committed by an avowed white supremacist, has centered around race relations. However, Sanders believes the conversation also must be about guns.

“There is racism out here. But we got to do something about these guns,” Sanders said.

Without knowing how prophetic their timing would seem now, experts from across the country will convene at Emanuel AME Friday for a daylong discussion about taking a public health approach to gun violence. The keynote sums up a grim new reality: “Facing the Facts: How Gun Violence is Shaping Life in America.”

“We can do something,” Sanders urged. “Something's got to be done.”

Something must be done, but what? Across South Carolina, from the Holy City to the Statehouse in Columbia, debate raged over that question.

Speaking with reporters Thursday, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said he can't think of a law that would have prevented the San Bernardino attack or similar shootings across the country. Even if gun laws were strengthened, he said, attackers would carry out their plans through other methods. That could mean utilizing explosives or machetes, he said.

“There are some things that just can't be solved by passing a law. ... People adapt,” Cannon said. “We underestimate the drive with which these people act and the extent to which they'll go to accomplish whatever it is they're trying to accomplish.”

Still, some state lawmakers believe gun reform is a viable way to quell the violence.

Two Democratic lawmakers close to the slain pastor of Emanuel AME, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, prefiled legislation Wednesday that would reinforce current background checks, among other reforms.

Two bills by state Sen. Gerald Malloy of Hartsville would prevent gun sales until an FBI background check is complete and extend a waiting period from three days to 28 days. Malloy, who is a gun owner, said ensuring complete background checks would fix a loophole that could prevent another Dylann Roof, who slipped through checks despite a felony drug charge, from obtaining a gun.

“We have to start this debate. We cannot live in a civilized society and have shootings by those who should not be able to acquire a gun,” Malloy said.

Sen. Marlon Kimpson of Charleston prefiled a similar bill, and four others to strengthen state gun laws.

“We can pray, but in addition to praying, God expects us to do the work,” Kimpson said. “That's what I'm prepared to do.”

Kimpson quoted a Winthrop Poll conducted in September for The State newspaper that found 80 percent of South Carolinians support better background checks that he plans to fight for.

“It will send a message to the rest of the country that if South Carolina can do it they can too, because we are viewed as a conservative state,” Kimpson said.

However, other state lawmakers contend the San Bernardino shooting shows why more people need to carry guns for protection.

Requiring better background checks would burden a citizen's ability to exercise the Second Amendment right to bear arms, according to Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck. He said the shooting incidents could provide traction for his constitutional carry bill to allow people to forgo obtaining a conceal and carry permit.

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“The bill resides in the Senate and I'm hoping incidents like this will get people's attention of where we can get it out of the Senate as it was written in the House without folks having to go to the government to assert a right,” Bright said. “It's an issue that's not going away until we allow people to defend themselves.”

The Upstate senator sponsored 10 bills last session to expand gun rights in South Carolina and said armed citizens, not the government, are the best way to combat mass shootings.

West Ashley resident Chris Myers doesn't want to live in fear. He doesn't feel the need to carry a firearm with him all of the time, he said, but it's comforting to know that he has the ability to protect his home if needed.

As an instructor with the Department of Homeland Security, Myers said the Second Amendment is something he discusses often for work, but it also hits close to home.

“I'm a citizen, too, like everyone else,” he said.

When exploring the issue of mass shootings, society shouldn't limit the discussion to just gun laws, Myers said. “Most of these situations are about mental illness and not about the gun itself. ... Are we not to look deeper about what happened?” he said.

Sandra Douglas was born and raised in England before a move roughly 20 years ago to the United States. “We don't have guns,” Douglas said.

The move didn't make the West Ashley mother feel any safer, she said. The thought of being pulled over by police “terrifies” her because she knows the officer will be armed. The same goes for numerous citizens on the street, she said. “I'm not for it, I'm not against it,” she said. “I'm just saying there are other ways to protect yourself.”

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the suspected San Bernardino shooters obtained their firearms legally. Gov. Nikki Haley's office did not comment on gun legislation in light of the recent shooting. Vice President Joe Biden also didn't address the issue while visiting Charleston Thursday for a gala in honor of Mayor Joe Riley.

Limiting the gun rights of domestic violence offenders this year was the most substantial change to state gun laws in years.

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