After nine black churchgoers were shot and killed by an alleged white supremacist during Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, last June, there was a swift and successful movement to remove the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds 120 miles away. What didn’t happen was a renewed national debate on gun control.
But conversations among Charlestonians were happening. And one of those led to the formation of Gun Sense SC, an organization that now has over 500 members. And its approach to gun control just might be successful.
"The black community is looking for a partner in the white community," said Rev. Nelson Rivers.
The group’s founder, Meghan Alexander, 44, says before Gun Sense SC formed, Charleston did not have a way of talking about gun control. “We’re hearing from voices we’re not generally used to hearing from,” Alexander said. “Voices that the legislature is not used to hearing from.”
The main objective of Gun Sense is to cut gun deaths in South Carolina by half. Currently, the state ranks ninth in the nation for gun deaths. According to the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, gun homicides in the state are the fourth deadliest in the nation. And the rate of aggravated assault is 2.5 times higher than the national average—the third worst rate in the country.
Alexander and core members identified three ways to realize their goal. The first is to close what’s known as the “Charleston loophole,” a flaw in the background check process that allowed shooter Dylann Roof to legally acquire a firearm despite a pending felony charge. The group also plans to push legislators to expand background checks, a measure Alexander says 90 percent of the state supports. Lastly, the organization will aim to get local officials to crack down on “bad apples,” or the 5 percent of gun dealers in the state who are selling 90 percent of crime guns.
And the group, which has only been operating for six months, is having some success in raising awareness. “It’s now seen as a moral crisis,” said Gun Sense SC member Gary Smith to claps and cheers at the organization’s meeting in Charleston last week. It was the first time the group has gathered since “Stand-Up Sunday,” a day of awareness in the city’s faith communities for gun control. Smith told Fusion he has spent 10 hours a day for the past six months calling, emailing and meeting with leaders from churches, mosques and synagogues. “They stepped up big time,” Smith said about the faith community. “The Episcopalians came out large,” he told me. Altogether, Smith was able to galvanize 1,300 congregations in South Carolina to participate in the call to action.
Gun Sense SC is bipartisan. “We won’t take money from Bloomberg or the NRA,” said Smith at last week’s meeting. Alexander says the only way gun reform in South Carolina will happen is if residents from both sides of the aisle are on board. “We knew this had to be a grassroots group to have legislators listen,” she said. Among those who claim membership to Gun Sense are gun owners, non-gun owners, veterans and doctors. “Diversity means not only ethnic diversity, but political diversity, age, gun owners and non owners. We have a bunch of gun-owning members,” Alexander says of her hopes for organization membership.
But looking around the room it’s not hard to see that at least on this night, there is a dearth of black support. One of the only black faces in the room was Reverend Nelson Rivers, from the Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston. The reverend walked up to the podium, the only man in the room wearing a suit, and immediately began to celebrate the group for taking a stand. “You,” he said confidently to the room, “are frankly the folk who make the decisions,” he continued. He assured the crowd that the black community would stand with them on gun reform measures. And beyond that, he guaranteed manpower. “My people are used to marching,” he said.
Fusion met with Rivers the following day in the sanctuary of his church in North Charleston, the predominantly black working class city where Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot in the back and killed by a police officer last year.
“The black community has been looking for a partner in the white community on this issue of gun violence, on background checks, on the proliferation of guns in our community for a long time,” the reverend said. “It’s the black community that’s had gun buyback programs, it’s the black community that’s had gun awareness.”
“For our community we have Stand-Up Sunday every Sunday,” said the pastor about his black Americans.
“If killing 20 of your children won’t make you act, then nothing will,” the pastor said about Congress’s failure to pass an expansion on universal background checks following the Newtown massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2013. “But it took the nine black lives lost at Emanuel to have another conversation,” he remarked, surprised. “And [Gun Sense SC] is trying to expand their base and outreach and they’ve done a pretty good job,” he said. “Stand Up Sunday was a great move.”
The organization, whose work has been primarily based in Charleston, is going statewide. This weekend Gun Sense has its first meeting in Greenville, South Carolina, a notoriously conservative enclave in the state. in March, the group will hold its first meeting in Myrtle Beach. By April, it’ll be unleashing a fundraising campaign. Right now, says Alexander, the group is focused on gaining momentum. “We’re not trying to get public support from lawmakers right now,” she told Fusion in an email. “We’ve had productive conversations with lawmakers,” she said, but only asked for and received support from former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, current Mayor John Tecklenburg, and the city’s police chief, Gregory Mullen.
Most pressing on the organization’s to-do list is to recognize the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Emanuel AME on June 17. “We’re planning a series of awareness events,” Alexander said.
“It’s too critical to ignore that people are dying in these kinds of numbers,” said Smith at the Gun Sense meeting. And finally, many more people are recognizing that.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.