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‘It’s become so normal’: 39 South Carolina kids and teens killed by guns in last year

Call the roll of South Carolina’s young, killed by guns in the last year.

Start with the beautiful names:

Princess died in a wild shootout. She was 17.

Fantasia was killed by a bullet fired during a drive-by. She was 12.

Heaven was shot and killed at home. She was 8.

Savannah was found in her home shot to death, along with her slain mother and father. She was 5.

On and on the list goes — at least 39 S.C. youths, ages 18 and under, died in acts of gun violence since Valentine’s Day 2018, according to a McClatchy analysis of data compiled by the nonprofit news organization The Trace, which focuses on gun violence. The Trace used information from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group that tracks shootings through news and police reports.

That 39 figure is more than twice the number of victims — 14 students and three adults — gunned down in last year’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass killing in Florida last Feb. 14. The massacre sparked a national gun-safety reform movement.

For years in South Carolina, the waves of carnage haven’t appeared to bother many aside from family, friends and assorted gun-safety activists. Most efforts to enact even modest reforms have gone nowhere.

“It’s just become so normal to people that there’s nobody even thinking about it anymore, which is most unfortunate,” said Sydney Clinton, 17, a leader in a Charleston-area youth group that is advocating for what it calls “common-sense gun control.”

In the aftermath of the Florida mass shooting, young people such as Clinton began mobilizing to try to inject new energy into a push for gun safety reforms in South Carolina.

On Jan. 31, Clinton’s group, called Lowcountry Students for Political Action, was joined by members of other S.C. gun safety organizations — including the S.C. chapter of Moms Demand Action and Arm in Arm, a Charleston group that calls for “responsible gun ownership” — at a rally on the steps of the State House in Columbia.

Only about two dozen people showed up, including journalists reporting on the event, to show their support for a bill that would eliminate the so-called Charleston loophole — a reference to a state law that allowed Charleston church killer Dylan Roof of Columbia to buy the Glock he used to kill nine parishioners at the Mother Emanuel AME church in 2015.

When Roof went to buy a gun at a Columbia area gun store, he should have been turned down because of a drug charge pending against him. Gun stores usually can access an FBI data base and do a quick check on a prospective gun buyer’s criminal history and learn if a person is eligible to buy a gun. But a glitch in the system resulted in Roof not being rejected or approved for the purchase. Current S.C. law allows gun stores to sell firearms to buyers who are not rejected within three days.

Clinton and the other gun reform groups want to extend the current three-day waiting period to five days. It sounds like a small change — but any proposal that restricts gun ownership in the slightest is sure to face challenges in the Legislature.

“There will be a lot of pro-gun people — not radical people — who will be opposing it,” says Jerry Stoudemire, president of the Gun Owners of South Carolina, which is associated with the National Rifle Association. Stoudemire calls the Charleston loophole bill a “feel-good proposal” and adds, “It doesn’t stand a chance.”

The dim prospects for the bill, and the low turnout at the Jan. 31 rally, didn’t discourage State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, who is sponsoring the bill in the state Senate along with Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster. In the House, a companion bill is sponsored by Rep. Seth Rose, D-Richland, and four other Democrats.

“You got to start somewhere,” says Kimpson, who told the rally: “We may be few in number today, but that is how a movement starts!”

Full story left untold

The tally of 39 South Carolina youth gun deaths in the last 12 months was arrived at by McClatchy, owner of The State Media Co. McClatchy worked with the Gun Violence Archive, to get an overall picture of youth gun deaths in various states and in the nation. Each day, Gun Violence Archive tracks gun deaths of all ages, using mostly news accounts from across the country.

The 39 S.C. youths died in all kinds of ways: In drive-by shootings, in killings that left their parents dead, in robberies gone wrong and in fatal shootings law enforcement sometimes calls “accidents” — as when someone leaves a gun in reach of a child, such as Aiden Martin, 3, of Walterboro, who grabbed a gun and shot himself in the head May 4.

One youth, varsity basketball player Amon Rice, 17, of Lower Richland, died in a teen shootout last May 10 where 58 shots were fired from seven different guns The shots were so fast and furious that law enforcement dubbed it a “mob fight” gun battle.. Twenty-two people, including a parent, were arrested.

Amon Rice, 17, died in a gun battle involving multiple guns and dozens of shots fired.

The McClatchy gun violence figures, however, don’t tell the full story of all youth firearm deaths in South Carolina.

Another category not included in the data: youths using guns to commit suicide.

In the most recent 12-month period in South Carolina for which statistics were available, from July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018, 24 youths 17 and under killed themselves with firearms. In the previous 12-month period, 28 youths used firearms to commit suicide. “Unsecured firearms” were the major cause of death in a majority of S.C. youth suicides, according to the annual State Child Fatality annual report.

Still another category of those harmed by guns: uncounted numbers of children wounded by gunfire.

Some examples of S.C. children injured in 2018 by guns:

Last August, a Gaston man left two children younger than 10 inside a car at Jim Hudson Ford in Lexington. “One child (the man’s son) got the gun and accidentally shot the other child after they were left in the car,” Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon told reporters.

In June, a 4-year-old Gaffney child was shot in an incident in his home.

In November, a 2-year-old was shot in the stomach in his Cheraw home.

In July, a 4-year-old shot himself in the head in a Myrtle Beach hotel room. He had gotten the gun out of his mother’s purse.

“Far more children live after being shot than those who are hit who go on to die,” says Richland County coroner Gary Watts, whose county posted the highest number of youths killed by guns last year: six.

Talking about gun safety

Dr. Deborah Greenhouse, a Columbia pediatrician, who views children being shot as a public health issue, has given South Carolina’s youth gun violence problem more thought than most.

A past president of the S.C. chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, she’s been interviewed by NPR on gun safety issues and testified before state legislative committees on child safety issues.

As a result, she’s been targeted by gun-rights advocates for her efforts as a doctor to keep children from being shot. In 2013, a lawmaker floated a law that would have prohibited her and other doctors from talking to patients about gun safety measures in the home, including gun locks, gun safes and safe storage techniques. The doctors fought back against what they dubbed a “gag” bill, press coverage followed and the proposal died.

Greenhouse says she counsels “every family that I see” on gun safety practices to make sure children can’t get hold of guns stored in their homes.

In recent months, she’s joined an informal national doctors’ movement on Twitter aimed at opposing the National Rifle Association, which last year mocked doctors’ efforts to save children’s lives by discussing gun safety with their patients.

Saying that doctors warning their patients about gun safety could infringe on patients’ Second Amendment rights to own a gun, the NRA tweeted, “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.”

Doctors including Greenhouse fought back, using the hashtag #this is our lane” to talk about gun safety. ”Many of my patients own guns, and I have no problem with that, as long as they are stored properly,” she said.

In recent years, the General Assembly has been a battleground between gun-safety and gun-rights advocates. Efforts to restrict buying an AR-15 to those over 21 failed.

Victories by gun-safety advocates usually consist of defeating measures that would make guns more available and visible. For example, last year they defeated a measure that would allow “open carry” — the practice of carrying guns in plain view in public spaces.

One bill had support from both Republicans and Democrats: a 2014 S.C. law that helped stop people who have been found by a court to have mental illnesses from buying guns.

Greenhouse says nearly all of her patients are grateful she goes over gun safety with them but recognizes how difficult the topic is when it comes to legislation.

“People focus on the mass shootings, on the festival shootings, shootings in the schools, when in reality, far more deaths happen in the homes,” Greenhouse said.

Greenhouse advocates three steps to reduce the number of youths being killed and wounded by guns:

Educate families about safe firearm storage.

Minimize children’s access to guns.

Do more research on state child gun deaths and injuries “so we know exactly what is going on in South Carolina with firearm safety. South Carolina is not the same as California or New York. We need to do some research to find out what’s going on here so we can fix the problems we have here,” she said.

A few changes

Some are working to keep children safe from gun violence.

In South Carolina’s public schools, Education Superintendent Molly Spearman has joined with State Law Enforcement Division chief Mark Keel and others, including Gov. Henry McMaster, to make it a priority to put mental health counselors in all 1,300 S.C. public schools by 2022 and an armed school resource officer in every school by 2020.

School officials are also working with SLED to put “threat assessment” teams in every school that would identify troubled kids, and intervene in a way that helps them and thwarts or lessens any dangers they might pose.

And in 2017, the Columbia City Council banned the use of bump stocks, an attachment that dramatically accelerates that rate-of-fire of semi-automatic rifles. Bump stocks made news that year when a man using rifles fitted with the attachment killed 58 people at a Las Vegas outdoor concert.

Bill_154 rally_0413.jpg
Sydney Clinton, 17, one of the founders of Lowcountry Students for Political Action, an alliance of mostly high school students, speaks at a rally at the South Carolina State House to urge legislators to pass senate bill 154. The bill would expand the background check period from three to five days before a gun purchase can be approved. 1/31/19 Tim Dominick

Another dynamic that could make a difference would be if prominent state officials would begin talking about gun safety, said Peter Zalka, a founder of Arm in Arm, a Charleston-based gun violence prevention group formed after the 2015 mass killing at Mother Emanuel church.

Since passing laws is difficult, Zalka suggests that high-profile public officials endorse public awareness programs to promote gun safety. Similar public relations initiatives have proved successful in raising seat belt usage and stopping young people from smoking. Two major aims of such programs could be educating people not to leave guns in cars where they can be stolen and educating people on how to keep their guns at home from their children, he said.

“We as a state don’t even have a sustained campaign to promote gun safety and responsibility,” Zalka said.

A major problem in the Legislature in passing any gun safety legislation at all, said Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, is that many lawmakers are afraid of running afoul of the NRA, which has a reputation for rallying gun owners in numbers sufficient to defeat candidates who advocate for gun-safety measures.

In recent years, Rutherford — a gun owner who owns “a lot” of guns — tried but failed to get a bill passed to ban sales of semi-automatic rifles to people under 21.

“I’m interested in anything we can target that will make a difference,” Rutherford said “But I’m not interested in anything that won’t put a dent in the problem of gun violence.”

NRA associate Stoudemire says a majority of state lawmakers respect gun rights. “We have a Republican-controlled House and Senate in South Carolina, and the Republicans tend to be pro-gun.”

Meanwhile, youths dying from guns in South Carolina continues.

As the New Year got underway, at least three S.C. children died from guns in January, according to the Gun Violence Archive: Joshua Meeks, 17, an 11th grader at Mauldin High School in Greenville, was shot on Jan. 31 following a drug deal gone bad. On Jan. 19, Robert Butler, 16, was shot on a roadside in Pickens County. The same day, a 14-year-old Allendale boy was killed in what first reports indicated was careless handling of a loaded gun.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, whose county had more than 50 gun deaths in 2018, said the real solutions lie not so much in laws but with individuals taking initiatives in a culture awash in guns and the careless handling of firearms.

“It starts in the homes, with parents being the first line of defense, making sure children know that guns and gun violence is not the answer to anything,” Lott said. “Then community — churches and schools and parks — need to keep on reinforcing that. It’s a community issue that the community needs to address.”

Zalka, who is 63, said he is heartened by young people in South Carolina and around the nation getting involved in the gun-safety movement since the Florida high school massacre.

“The student movement is going to be sustainable, because they feel vulnerable and empowered at the same time,” Zalka said. “They have not only injected a sense of urgency, but they have energized the whole gun violence prevention movement.”

Every conversation on guns ought to start with the non-controversial question “How do we keep our kids safe?” Zalka said.

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