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Mass Shooting

Charleston Area Faced Gun Violence Spike Before Church Shooting

Nearly eight out of every 10 killings in the area last year involved a firearm.

Nine months before nine people were shot and killed during a Bible-study session at a historically black church in downtown Charleston, S.C., 38-year-old Michael Oswald, wielding a legally-acquired AK-47, shot two deputies through the door of his apartment in the city’s West Ashley neighborhood. Oswald, a conspiracy theorist with a short fuse, had an arrest record and a permit to carry concealed weapons, and had been drunkenly banging on his neighbors’ doors. One of the deputies, 43-year-old Joseph Matuskovic, was killed at the scene; the rounds were reportedly too powerful to be halted by his body armor. Oswald died later that day.

The two men were the 11th and 12th people to be killed by gunfire in Charleston in 2014; the year’s total number would reach 16. Zoom out to measure the broader and more crime-ridden tri-county area (also known as the Lowcountry), and the picture of how gun violence affects the residents of greater Charleston becomes clearer. The Post and Courier counted 66 murders for the region last year, a 40 percent increase, with guns used in nearly eight of every 10 killings. Despite comprising a quarter of the area’s population, blacks accounted for 77 percent of the perpetrators and 70 percent of the victims of gun crime.

The Post and Courier infographic: Tri-County Homicides since 2001

Joseph Riley, the mayor of Charleston for the last four decades, cites a proliferating black market for guns as a major driver of the recent gun violence. He has pushed unsuccessfully to expand regulations for military-style assault rifles and tougher penalties for crimes committed while possessing a gun. On Thursday morning, Riley, an early member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG), went a step further, saying that the “easy ability for people to gain possession of them no doubt contributes to violent acts.”

“I personally believe there are far too many guns out there, and access to guns, it’s far too easy,” he said on Thursday as he stood beside his ashen police chief at a post-shooting press conference. “Our society has not been able to deal with that yet.” (The Trace received seed funding from Everytown for Gun Safety, a successor to MAIG.)

Police in neighboring North Charleston, the regional leader in homicides, put the blame on gangs, biker groups, drugs, and turf battles for the uptick in violence, noting that all but two of the city’s 22 homicide victims in 2013 knew their killers. “These crimes are committed by the same people — most of them in the criminal element — over and over,” Eddie Driggers, the town’s police chief, told the Post and Courier. At a community meeting last July, North Charleston mayor Keith Summey revealed that he and his wife had been shot at three times.

Attempts to stem urban gun violence in greater Charleston include a 2008 initiative spearheaded by the solicitor of South Carolina’s Ninth Circuit to prosecute some gun-related crimes in the federal court system, where punishments are more severe. The effort has yielded lengthy sentences for firearms offenders. In addition to the implementation of ShotSpotter, a gunshot-detection system that pinpoints the location of outdoor gunfire, last year Charleston adopted PredPol, a software program similar to the kind used to forecast earthquakes and aftershocks that tries to predict possible violence hotspots based on past criminal activity.  

South Carolina Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a colleague of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a fellow state senator who was killed on Wednesday night, told CNN Thursday morning, “We must make getting guns out of the hands of bad people a legislative agenda, and that is what I intend to do when the session resumes in January.”

[Photo: AP Photo/David Goldman]