Charleston attack should provoke debate about causes of US mass shootings

A Bible study in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, S.C., is a profound and holy event. This church, after all, went underground during the period of 1834-1865 when African-American churches were outlawed in the South. It was burned to the ground once. It hosted Martin Luther King Jr. during the height of the civil rights movement. The church’s very existence through all its travails could well be viewed as a divine blessing.

But on Wednesday night, tragedy struck again, allegedly at the hands of a young, lone gunman who sat with the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and other worshipers for an hour before fatally shooting nine people. Hours later, Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man once pictured in a jacket with the flags of foreign white supremacist regimes, was arrested in Shelby, N.C.

The killings now join a numbing pattern of disturbed people shooting multiple innocent victims.

“This type of mass violence,” President Obama said in a bold statement, “doesn’t happen in other advanced countries.”

The president said, “I’ve had to make statements like this too many times.” And later, he added, “It is in our power to do something about it.”

Yes, the perpetrator used a firearm. More will become clear as the investigation continues about whether the gun was legally obtained and whether the suspect had serious mental and behavioral issues.

Stirring the gun debate

But the president’s words doubtless will stir the advocates of responsible gun control and the defenders of the foolish and dangerous attitude that any gun control is an infringement on the right to bear arms. Defenders of gun rights argue that more guns, not fewer, and easier restrictions, not stronger ones, would make Americans safer. Though all logic and recent and more distant experience make a lie of that claim, the argument will continue to be made, as it was even after the deaths of 26 people including 20 children in a tragedy known by one name: Newtown.

David Price, representative of North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District, offered a blunt but truthful assessment of this agonizing event. “I want,” he said, “to express deep sadness and outrage at last night’s terrible attack in Charleston, which once again has laid bare our struggles with prejudice, hatred and gun violence.”

A tragic irony is that the perpetrator had joined Rev. Pinckney, also a state legislative member, and others in a tradition observed all over the country by devout parishioners: the Wednesday night Bible study. Church, as the president noted, is supposed to be a place of peace and “solace.” Roof is alleged to have turned it into a killing ground.

Prejudice and violence

For now, America grieves with the families of these innocents, these righteous Christians who wanted only to worship with one another. The funerals are coming, and so no doubt is much understandable anger over what happened. So, too, coming is a difficult but absolutely necessary dialogue, around this nation, on exactly what Price talked about, prejudice, hatred and gun violence.

These issues must be faced, here and now. And they must be faced by the people’s representatives in the court houses and state houses and on Capitol Hill, where the pro-gun lobby stalls and threatens and waits for tragedies just to blow over while beating down any attempts to bolster gun safety.

The race issue remains complex, but it’s clear that the election of the nation’s first black president in 2008 was far from a signal that racial prejudice and fear were no longer part of the national psyche. They have been, and they are and they must be publicly addressed by those who want to lead the people at all levels.

A gunman has claimed more innocent lives and stirred, as the president said, a “dark part of our history.” America and Americans must face up now, to history and to one another.