Gun culture's dark side filled with horror, grief

Last Halloween, when Tony "T.J." Darrisaw happily ran up to a single-story house in Sumter, he was met by a burst of fire from one of world's deadliest weapons - an AK-47 assault rifle.

T.J. died instantly, a bag of trick-or-treat candy in his hand and more than a dozen bullets in his body.

The AK-47 was set on fully automatic. It was, in effect, a machine gun.

T.J. was 12 years old.

His death illustrates the horror of the unintended consequences of South Carolina's love affair with guns - an affair marked by easy access to firearms by just about anyone.

"One moment, everything is going well, not a care in the world, and then in the blink of an eye, your worst imaginable nightmare has transpired before your eyes," says Sumter Police Chief Patty Patterson, 49.

Last year, Patterson was downtown at Sumter's annual Halloween festival. It was a happy time, with music, free candy and a dog costume competition.

"Then the call came that we had had an unknown number of gunshots fired and several people, children, had been hit."

A few days ago, Patterson was standing up the street from where T.J. was shot. Across the street is the cemetery where the boy's body is buried.

T.J.'s death sent shock waves through the Sumter community, Patterson says. "Taking the life of someone else is not what life is supposed to be about.

T.J.'s parents are still too overwrought to talk about their child's death. One of their other children also was shot but recovered. The shooter told police he saw people in masks outside his house, had been robbed before and feared for his life.

"Unfortunately for us in Sumter, this past year, we've had a few instances where toddlers and a young teen lost their lives as a result of gun violence," she says.

Patterson is no bleeding heart. Tough and athletic, she was the first woman on SLED's SWAT team. Known as a crack shot and an expert in emergency driving techniques, she carries a Glock .40, the powerful, reliable handgun favored by police officers. Her husband and teenage daughter hunt. Her face says, "I mean business."

While reluctant to suggest laws that might make things safer, she has ideas about changes needed in the state's gun culture:

- People should have training before using a gun, for their own protection. This means not only knowing how to load, aim and shoot it - but rehearsing what to do in a sudden, fear-filled situation. Police officers do exactly this type of weapons training.

"A gun in the hands of someone who's not properly trained more likely than not will wind up compromising its owner's life or someone else's life."

- We should do more to keep guns away from children. The Sumter Police Department gives away gun locks and has gun buy-back programs.

- Communities should initiate more conflict-resolution programs in schools, homes and churches.

Quentin Patrick, 23, the man arrested on state murder charges in T.J.'s death, is now in custody awaiting trial.

It was illegal for him to possess a firearm because he's a convicted felon - he has three convictions on drug trafficking charges. But he was able to easily buy the gun through an advertisement in a local shopper publication. Someone converted the gun to be fully automatic - also illegal.

Patrick has pleaded guilty in federal court to violating federal firearms laws. He awaits sentencing, but could get life. His murder trial in state court is scheduled for next year.

T.J. is one statistic in a welter of gun deaths across the state, each its own horror story.

In 2008, he was just one of 522 South Carolinians who died after being shot.

Of those fatal shootings, 215 involved murder and various types of manslaughter. There were 296 gun suicides. Only 11 were characterized as "justifiable homicides," or cases of self defense, according to preliminary 2008 statistics from SLED.

An additional 2,086 people were injured in gun incidents, many seriously, SLED reported.

In South Carolina, gun violence takes many forms.

For example, guns are the weapon of choice in the state's three-dozen odd criminal domestic violence killings each year. Most victims are women.

In the heat of a household argument, it's easy to pull a trigger, says Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council.

South Carolina dropped to eighth in the nation this year in the number of women killed by men. For years, the state had been No. 1 or 2.

One way to change that, Hudson said, is to stop people who have restraining orders against them in a domestic violence situation from possessing a gun. They already can't be granted a concealed weapons permit.

For years, Hudson has fought to toughen the law. But the Legislature hasn't acted.

"This is the dark side of our gun culture," says Hudson.