Community and church leaders gathered Monday in the room at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church where nine parishioners were gunned down to announce a new effort to curb gun violence in South Carolina.
Organizers said the nonprofit Gun Sense SC will work for, among other things, tighter background checks on gun sales while respecting the right of people to bear arms in a state with the nation’s 11th-highest number of gun deaths per capita.
The announcement came almost six months after the June 17 Emanuel slayings and the week after still another mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., left 14 dead and 21 wounded.
“When the unnamable keeps happening, the people must name it and recognize it for what it is – evil,” said Emanuel pastor the Rev. Norvel Goff, whose predecessor — the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator — was one of the shooting victims. “For us to overcome gun violence in America we must come together with a common goal and a common agenda.”
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Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said Charleston’s legacy must be what it does in response to the shootings.
“We do not want to encroach on law-abiding citizens’ rights to own a gun, but we must prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands,” he said.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen called for expanded background checks “simply to address what is already in the law that says some people cannot legally possess handguns.” He called for more vigorous enforcement of existing gun laws and stronger penalties for violating those laws.
“Currently, if you possess a handgun illegally, the penalty is the same if you possess the handgun one time or 25 times,” he said. “That needs to change.”
Dylann Roof, who is white, faces murder charges in state court and numerous federal charges, including hate crimes, in the shootings.
When Roof went to buy the gun that police say he used, federal officials didn’t immediately approve his background check as they sought more information about an earlier drug arrest.
Clerical mistakes prevented them from learning those details and the FBI allowed the sale under a rule approving a background check if it can’t give a definitive answer in three days. Roof likely would have been denied the gun under a law preventing anyone who uses or is addicted to a controlled substance from buying weapons.
Gun Sense SC plans what it calls Stand-Up Sunday on Jan. 31 to get church congregations to discuss gun violence. Organizers predict 1,000 congregations will participate.
The group wants each congregation to send nine members to Columbia when gun legislation comes up next year for key votes. At least 10 gun control bills have been proposed for the new legislative session.