As night fell over the Holy City Monday, S.C. legislators listened to gun-reform advocates retell the story of how an avowed white supremacist took nine lives less than a mile away at Emanuel AME Church.
Among them was the Rev. Sharon Risher, daughter of Ethel Lance, one of nine churchgoers killed on June 17, 2015, at the church, allegedly by Dylann Roof, a Columbia man and an avowed white supremacist.
Unlike speakers who spoke before her, Risher called on the legislators to feel what she did, calling reform of the state’s gun laws an “emotional issue” that is also a “human issue.”
“I need you to know that (reform) ... is the beginning to an end of having not one more daughter, mother, child, grandchildren lose someone in a church,” Risher said. “I beg you, senators, with everything I have in my heart, to help the survivors of the Emanuel Nine and the citizens here in South Carolina know that we have someone in the Senate working for us.”
Risher was addressing a panel of state senators holding the second of four hearings scheduled across South Carolina to explore what changes — if any –should be made to the state’s gun laws. Monday’s hearing was held at the College of Charleston’s Stern Student Center.
The tone of Monday’s hearing was as different as Charleston is from Greenville, where the first hearing was held Sept. 15.
The Charleston speakers heavily leaned toward reforming the state’s gun laws. More than 60 spoke in favor of reform. About 10 people spoke in favor of keeping the state’s gun laws intact. The crowd was composed of about 300.
Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, the panel’s chairman, said he wasn’t surprised by the message of the Holy City’s speakers. Charleston, he said, is a community that was “crushed by a man’s terror.”
“You’ve got a city that’s hurt,” Malloy said. “You’ve got victims that were here in the room. … For a person to go into a church and to kill nine people and to have five other victims, that is almost unimaginable.”
Malloy added he expects future hearings will have different tones as well, which is why they are being held in different corners of the state. No bill is pending before the Legislature, and senators have not spoken with each other yet about any proposal they might draft, Malloy said.
Among the speakers calling for reform were former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen and state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston.
Jennifer Pinckney, wife of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was among those slain June 17, was at Monday night’s hearing but did not speak.
The sister-in-law of Meghan Hollingsworth, the teacher shot and wounded last week at Townville Elementary in Anderson County along with two students, also addressed senators.
Attempting to hold back her tears, Jillian Hollingsworth of North Charleston said waiting to learn if her sister-in-law was alive after learning of the shooting was “horrifying.” She added while there is no legislation that will prevent every shooting, it was imperative to prevent dangerous people from getting access to guns.
“It shouldn’t be acceptable that my kids have never known school without active-shooter drills, cramming quietly into dark and tight spaces to hide from a bad person with a gun,” Jillian Hollingsworth said. “Thoughts and prayers do not legislate. People do.
“And so far, we have failed miserably.”
Gun-rights advocates grew frustrated as the hearing went on, feeling slighted by the panel and accusing senators of favoring reform advocates. To the few who kept interjecting, Malloy stressed that he was calling speakers in the order that they had signed up.
Andrew Greene of Summerville was among those who expressed his frustration. He called on the panel to empower women, and arm citizens and teachers.
“If you know you’re not going to have a fighting chance, you’re an easy prey,” Greene said. “Guns do not kill people. People kill people. If not with a gun, it will be with a knife or a hammer, and we have seen that.”
Trevor Perrydore of Berkeley County said existing laws need to be enforced. The so-called “Charleston loophole” was not a loophole, he added; the system simply failed.
Existing gun-control laws give law enforcement three days to perform a background check to determine if a would-be purchaser should be barred — by a charge, for example — from buying a gun. After three days, the would-be purchaser can buy a gun even if the background check has not been completed or red flags raised by that background check have not been resolved.
Roof should have been barred from buying a gun because of drug charges against him. However, a background check did not find those charges within three days and he purchased the handgun that police say he used at Emanuel AME.
“Why are we not prosecuting those that are committing crimes already?” Perrydore asked. “Why should we expect that new laws will (work)?”
The next hearing is scheduled for Oct. 18 in Hartsville. The final hearing is set for Oct. 27, just before Roof’s November trial.