The Wednesday night slaying of nine men and women at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in the heart of Charleston raises questions about what government leaders – and communities – should do next to address the problems that led to the shootings that shocked the nation.
Folks walking around downtown Charleston and visiting the historic church Friday said the tragedy would spark debates on gun control, mental health care and the Confederate flag that still flies on the State House grounds.
A look at where Charleston residents and visitors say what should happen next:
Problem and solution ‘bigger than policy’
Never miss a local story.
Brian Kennedy, 25, was driving from Georgia home to Durham, N.C., when he stopped in Charleston to lay a bundle of white flowers at Emanuel AME Church, next to hundreds of other bouquets.
Kennedy said the shooting has brought focus onto racial, ideological and class divisions that have been below the surface for decades.
“America has an issue with race and has difficulty talking about race. The way America has dealt with it for the past 50 years is to not talk about it,” said Kennedy, a Brandeis University public policy graduate student.
“(W)e’re going to see enough of this stuff that we can’t ignore it anymore. I think this is part of that.”
The problem is “bigger than policy. It’s about culture, it’s about the way that we feel about each other.”
Time for gun control
The Rev. Caleb Lee, associate pastor at Grace Episcopal Church in Charleston, said the time has come for discussions about stricter rules on gun possession, such age restrictions and additional background checks.
But Lee, who worked in North Carolina before moving to Charleston six months ago, said he understands calls for additional gun regulation will be met with gridlock in Southern legislatures.
He’s torn, too.
“I’m a hunter and I’m also a Christian,” said Lee, while on a walk with his wife and young daughter near the College of Charleston campus.
But Lee said he sees a tipping point on gun control since this week’s murders were part of a racially motivated incident at a church.
“Every time there’s another incident I think people understand more and more that this needs to happen,” Lee said.
‘Can only sweep so much under the rug’
Jena Mohr, 23, a College of Charleston accounting graduate student, said she expects the shooting will spark a debate about gun control, but the problem is about much more.
“People are going to want to get rid of guns, but ultimately it’s the person that’s controlling the gun.”
Mohr said leaders are seeking the death penalty, but noted how families of the victims were “already preaching forgiveness.”
“This incident – obviously (I’m) not glad it’s happened – but I think it brings to light the issues that need to be talked about: death penalty, forgiveness, gun control, race. You know, you can only sweep so much under the rug before the mess starts to spill.”
More mental health help
Julie Ham’s two children, Jack and Sullivan, ducked under police tape to place bouquets of flowers in front of Emanuel AME Church.
The Medical University of South Carolina facilities maintenance manager said she could not stop thinking about the role mental health care could play in helping prevent tragedies like this week’s mass murder.
“We need to identify these people and keep guns out of their hands and get them the mental health help they need,” she said. “There were obviously people who knew (the accused shooter) and should have seen the signs.”
Conservative rhetoric to blame
Leaning against a police barricade outside Emanuel AME Church, retiree Bobby Riddick said he fears that defense attorneys will try to argue insanity or some other mental health issue, drawing the focus away from the hate crime.
Riddick, 51, also was not confident that the killings would prompt a meaningful debate about racism and violence. He noted that hate and white supremacy groups persist in South Carolina and that the problem has more to do with cultural attitudes toward race.
“A lot of conservatives ... are saying a lot of the wrong things, making a lot of the younger people get this hate into them ... instead of bringing them out.
“I’ve been here two-and-a-half months, and we’re still flying Confederate flag here, which we should have overcome a long time ago.”
Call to parents
Dell Kapp, who works in hospital registration in Greer, said shootings are a call to parents to watch their children and understand what’s influencing them.
“The fathers and mothers (must) step up to the plate, teaching them right from wrong from the beginning and being involved in their lives,” she said. “And there should be consequences for things like this too.”
Kapp said she would like to see limits placed on violent video games.
“You just wonder what type of influence that the younger kids doing all these video games, shooting and all that,” she said. “(You) want to monitor their actions on that.”
Don’t focus on the Confederate flag
Connie Mason, a homeless shelter volunteer from Mount Pleasant, bowed her head and prayed in front of the church.
She said problems must be solved in the home and if parents are not helping their kids, “I think as Christian I am called to confront the parent. And it needs to work through the schools with counselors recognizing children that are at risk.”
But attention does not need to be on blaming the murders on the Confederate flag on the State House grounds in Columbia, she said.
“The flag is representative of every resident in this state and all they have been through and how far they’ve come to overcome their past,” Mason said. “We need to focus on things other than the flag. We need to focus on the families that are hurting and have lost someone.”
Racism will not die
Willis Mitchell, a Charleston painter who used to attend Emanuel AME Church, said he would like to get white and black government, church and community leaders to work on race relations.
But he questioned whether the talks would accomplish anything.
Mitchell said he is sure another shooter is planning the next attack.
“It’s going to be hard for action,” he said. “I can sit here and tell you what you want to hear but it ain’t going to work.
“There’s the next guy with a gun. Racism is never going to die.”
Reach Self at (803) 771-8658
Reach Shain at (803) 771-8619
Riley: Guns ‘too easy to get’
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said Thursday he is not sure whether the shooting in his city would spark a change to the nation’s gun laws.
But, he said, “There are too many guns in America. There is no other industrialized nation in the world that has the amount of guns we have and the accessibility of guns and handguns.
“Whether this (shooting) will be the catalyst, I don’t know. I thought the horrible event in Connecticut with the children would have been a catalyst. Our country is slow to do that. And it’s not easy.
“But the fact of the matter is, they’re too plentiful. They’re too easy to get, and when they’re too easy to get, too many people get them, and bad things happen.”