The newspapers have been black and white and red all over in 2015, with today’s one of the most upsetting yet. A twenty-one year old man facing a felony charge was given a semiautomatic handgun, which he used to kill nine people at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. The mass killing in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has shocked the nation, especially because it took place in a house of worship with a deep history of protecting the safety, freedom and dignity of all Americans.
It is hard not to think of the September 16, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four little girls were killed in the terrorist attack, called “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity” by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Incidentally, two black teens were also killed by firearms in Birmingham that day, one by a police officer and one by a white teen returning from an anti-immigration rally.
We posted John Coltrane’s harrowing response, “Alabama,” earlier this year on the anniversary of the beginningof the Selma marches. Political response to the bombing was swift and substantial. Public outrage over the crime became a primary catalyst in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We only wish our leadership had the same sort of political courage today.
Another song we posted in response to current events this year was “Heaven Help Us All,” a song by an ex-Marine named Ron Miller, made famous by Stevie Wonder in 1970. It contains the lines, “Heaven help the boy who won’t reach twenty-one / Heaven help the man who gave that boy a gun.”
“Heaven Help Us All” by Stevie Wonder
And we don’t usually comment on politics here on the Hymie’s blog (after all what do we know about how to run the world when we hardly leave our neighborhood) but this line seemed strangely apt today. You may have read news accounts of Roof’s descent into isolation and racial hatred, and recall the twenty-one year old had been charged with felony narcotics possession in February. This, of course, would leave you to wonder how he could come to own a gun two months later, given the provision of the Brady Act which requires background checks before a firearm may be purchased. Here’s how: Roof received the Glock semiautomatic .44 handgun as a gift from his father, and South Carolina is one of the thirty-three states which do not require background checks for private transactions (Minnesota, in case you’re wondering, requires a permit which in turn requires a background check).
And, in addition to prohibiting felons and those charged with felonies from purchasing firearms, the Firearm Possession Prohibition Law, 18 USC § 922(g) & (n), makes it illegal to knowingly sell or give a weapon to an ineligible recipient. We can assume from this Mother Jones article about the attorney who represented Roof in the February case, that the killer’s father Ben Roof was aware his son faced a felony charge when he gave the boy the weapon in April. It’s hard to imaging he wasn’t also aware his son, unemployed and aimless, was hardly a safe candidate for firearm ownership. We hope the prosecutor in Lexington County, South Carolina will pursue charges against Ben Roof.
President Obama began his statement yesterday by saying, “I’ve had to make comments like this too many times.” It’s true: he has addressed the nation following a mass shooting more than a dozen times. After twenty children and six adults were killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, it seemed as though the Obama administration may have gathered the political courage to push for any changes to federal firearm regulations, but any efforts were doomed by Senate Democrats facing “red state” re-election campaigns in 2014.
A Pew Research poll found 85% in support of universal background checks. This is pretty common for polls on the subject. Additionally, Polls have shown strong majority support from gun owners, although the leadership of the NRA changed its position a few years ago to oppose universal background checks. All we know is that once again a person who would not have passed a background check came into possession of a semiautomatic handgun and the consequences were tragic.
“At some point,” the President continued in his address yesterday, “we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It is in our power to do something about it.”
“Gun” by Gil Scott-Heron
If only the leadership of his political party had the courage to act on its conviction, and would allow a vote on the legislation nearly all Americans support.