A South Carolina state senator and pastor held court in the Senate recently, speaking in a booming and unmistakable baritone about an event fraught with political and racial overtones.
It was just the sort of issue politicians would rather avoid.
But the video that had circulated of a white police officer gunning down Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who fled after being pulled over in a traffic stop in North Charleston, demanded state leaders’ attention.
With his signature gentility, Sen. Clementa Pinckney, an African-American Democrat from South Carolina’s southern coast, told a Biblical parable. Then he pushed for leaders to pass legislation that would require police to wear body cameras.
“Today the nation looks at South Carolina and is looking at us to see if we will rise … to be the state that we say that we are,” Pinckney told his fellow senators.
He added: “The Lord teaches us to love all, and we pray that over time justice be done.”
Weeks later, Pinckney, 41, was gunned down along with eight other congregants as he led an evening prayer group inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, where he served as pastor.
Again, South Carolina’s leaders are confronted with issues they would rather avoid. And while a debate has already begun over the Confederate flag that hangs in front of the state’s Capitol, the prospect of new gun safety laws has met with far more hesitancy.
It’s certainly not due to the depth of affection for Pinckney, who had held public office for nearly two decades and was respected by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Rep. James Smith, a Columbia, South Carolina, Democrat who serves in the National Guard, tells The Trace he hopes the shooting will serve as a wake-up call for lawmakers on gun safety issues. But he recognizes that while he supports universal background checks for gun purchasers and eliminating the so-called gun show loophole — private sales, such as those at gun shows, are not subject to federal background checks — many don’t agree, even in his own party.
Smith says it will be difficult to bring Republicans and fellow Democrats over to his side. In South Carolina, much as it is throughout the bright-red South, personal and political convictions about the place of guns don’t follow the traditional racial or political lines.
“I can’t explain that,” Smith says of the state’s gun politics. “I can explain myself, as a professional soldier who’s actually used weapons. When you talk to law enforcement, or real soldiers, they all think (fewer gun restrictions) is crazy. It’s important to ensure there’s responsible people who have weapons.”
Smith noted that the state’s biggest advancements on gun control came when the National Rifle Association stood on the sidelines. In 2013, the General Assembly passed legislation that prevents those with mental illness from buying firearms, known as the Alice Boland bill. This year, a reform of domestic-violence laws instituted state-enforced bans on guns for abusers. (The penalties are tiered according to severity of the crime.)
Rep. Todd Rutherford, the House Democratic leader and one of the state’s leading African-American figures (pictured above), tells The Trace the church shooting hasn’t changed his generally pro-gun stance.
“My first thought was ‘I’ve got guns, I wish I was there to stop it,’” Rutherford says of the attack. “I think that most people are so upset because we wish that Sen. Pinckney had a gun. We wish others in the church had a gun to stop this idiot from doing what he did.”
Rutherford stands with most of those in the legislature — Republicans and Democrats — who believe law-abiding citizens should have access to a gun if they want it, with as little government interference as possible. Gun issues are one significant way that South Carolina Democrats, including members of the Legislative Black Caucus, differentiate themselves from the national party.
Earlier this year, the House easily passed a measure 90–18 that would allow people to carry concealed weapons without any training or a permit. The measure is opposed by local law enforcement.
Most Democrats voted for it, as did Rutherford and seven other members of the black caucus. Most of the 18 votes against came from other African-American members. The vote shows how, in the South Carolina, the black caucus is generally split on the issue of gun control. (The House bill is expected to be taken up by the Senate when the legislature reconvenes next year.)
Like Rutherford, Sen. Larry Grooms, a Republican colleague whose district is near Pinckney’s, says his convictions about guns haven’t wavered in the shooting’s aftermath. He says he plans to support the measure to eliminate restrictions on concealed carry.
“People in South Carolina have a general distrust of government more than other states,” Grooms tells The Trace. “If we had the most strict gun laws on the books, would it have stopped (the Charleston shooter)? I don’t think so.”
[Photo: Rep. Todd Rutherford speaks at a 2009 House Judiciary Committee meeting in Columbia, S.C.; AP/Brett Flashnick]