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Monday, February 19, 2024

Charleston shooting survivors feel ignored by GOP presidential candidates - The Washington Post

Massacre survivors plead with Republican candidates to talk about guns

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The pastor meant to devote Bible study to the gravity of marriage, but here they were, once again, talking about guns.

“A man shot his girlfriend and then killed himself,” one congregant said from the second row of their historic Black church, referencing a clip he’d just seen on the news.

“How do we intercede,” a woman to his left chimed in, “when we notice the warning signs?”

The Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, senior pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church — known worldwide as Mother Emanuel — had prayed for the words to counsel his members through America’s ceaseless violence. They were all aware, intimately so, that the worst can happen and nothing much changes.

This Wednesday meeting used to convene in the basement before a white supremacist showed up one June night in 2015 and opened fire, killing nine people. Now Republican presidential candidates and their backers crisscrossing South Carolina ahead of the state’s Feb. 24 primary seemed to be exhibiting what the 56-year-old pastor called a “lapse in memory.”

Since the start of January, the United States has counted six mass killings, its rate of firearm-wrought bloodshed outpacing every other wealthy nation by far. Thecandidates vying for the GOP nomination, if they address the carnage at all, make no mention of safeguarding access to the weapons used in attack after attack after attack.

Donald Trump and Nikki Haley’s comments on the campaign trail have troubled Manning and others close to Mother Emanuel, many of whom have lobbied for stronger background checks, a policy shift most Americans support, only to meet resistance from conservative leaders. The familiar disappointment crept back when, just as the Republican contenders were descending on Iowa for its caucuses, a teenager not far from Des Moines staged the first school rampage of 2024. Meet-and-greets resumed before the dead were buried.

Haley, the former South Carolina governor, had offered the most detailed policy solution: funding more mental health care — though, she said, the states would have to pay for it. The pastor doubted that approach on its own would make a dent in the country’s daily death toll.

Trump, meanwhile, was calling himself “the best friend gun owners have ever had in the White House.” As president, he briefly considered tightening background checks in 2019 after gunmen in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, killed 31 people over one August weekend. Then, under pressure from the National Rifle Association, he scrapped that idea, saying, “A lot of the people who put me where I am are strong supporters of the Second Amendment.” These days, he boasted about doing nothing — literally, the pastor lamented.

“During my four years, nothing happened,” Trump told a gathering of NRA members this month in Pennsylvania. “And there was great pressure on me having to do with guns. We did nothing.”

His remarks at a northeast Iowa rally one day after the school shooting in rural Perry killed an 11-year-old boy and the high school principal had landed like salt in the Mother Emanuel congregation’s psychic wound. It was “so surprising” and “just terrible,” Trump said before adding, “but we have to get over it.”

Looking out at the pews now, the pastor saw people who had not been surprised, not in the least, including church historian Lee Bennett, who’d grown up practically across the street and knew all nine of the Charleston church massacre victims.

Bennett recited their names while guiding tours of Mother Emanuel. There was Myra Thompson, who had been a few years behind him in grade school, perhaps also prone to staring out the window at the pool only White kids could use. And DePayne Middleton-Doctor, who’d left behind four young daughters.

A retired Army infantry officer, Bennett respected the Second Amendment but wished lawmakers would update regulations for the modern era. Back when it was written, he liked to point out, a single-shot musket took a minute to reload. Armed with a handgun, Dylann Roof had invaded their basement and sprayed 10 bullets in a matter of seconds. Now Bible study convenes upstairs behind locked doors.

Tonight the group was discussing what Jesus says about divorce when the conversation veered to abusive partners with guns. The woman who’d asked the question — “How do we intercede when we see the signs?” — shared that she would have died had she stayed in her marriage.

The pastor understood. As a kid, he’d watched his mother endure a violent relationship.

“I was in ninth grade,” Manning told the congregants. “I was scrawny. He had a gun, and I could not even protect my mom.”

The police lacked power, too: South Carolina has never had a red-flag law, so state courts can’t intervene to temporarily remove a firearm from someone deemed dangerous. Haley wanted to keep it that way, saying at a town hall last summer after announcing her candidacy: “I don’t trust the government to deal with red-flag laws. I don’t trust that they won’t take them away from people who rightfully deserve to have them.”

She and Trump had both opposed closing what activists dubbed the Charleston loophole, the technicality that permitted Roof to buy a .45-caliber Glock before the FBI completed a background check that would have rendered him ineligible. Under federal law, gun sales can proceed if such a probe takes longer than three days, but since the massacre, 22 states have moved to expand that window. South Carolina has not.

Manning hoped Haley would change her mind, considering she’d attended the funerals here. Instead, just that morning, she was talking about Mother Emanuel on “The Breakfast Club” radio show, detailing her push to remove the Confederate flag from the State House in wake of the killings. Roof had uploaded photos of himself holding the flag, along with a manifesto in which he declared: “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world.”

Yet in the same interview, Haley said the national media had rushed in to “define” the massacre. “They wanted to make it about guns,” she said. “They wanted to make it about racism …”

It was about guns, the pastor thought. It was about racism.

It was why he’d traded his sports coat and bow tie uniform for casual attire that helped him blend in. It was why his office had a flat-screen television playing 14 angles of surveillance footage.

It was why Hali Doctor had to grow up without her mother.

Trump’s team was organizing a fundraiser upstate, and Haley would soon be heading to her next meet-and-greet in the capital at Doc’s Barbeque. Six miles south, Hali Doctor was trying to ignore it all.

In the library on Columbia College’s leafy campus one late January afternoon, she scrolled through TikTok videos before her first volleyball practice of the season.

Swipe. Someone was giving a sparkly eye shadow tutorial.

Swipe. Someone was talking about an “anti-aging drug for dogs.”

Swipe. No one was talking about politics or anything the college senior found equally depressing. Hali, 21, had tweaked her algorithm to maintain what she called her “bubble of peace.”

In the rare event a candidate appeared on her screen, she’d flick them away, though her strategy wasn’t foolproof. She’d heard what Trump said after the Iowa school shooting: “But we have to get over it.”

Hali said she would never “get over” what happened to her mom.

DePayne Middleton-Doctor, an ordained minister who loved singing Gospel songs, was 49 when Roof ambushed Bible study. Hali had been 13, the second-to-youngest of her four daughters.

Her oldest sister turned to activism, but Hali dreaded revisiting her pain that way. She’d even declined an invitation to meet President Biden last month when he visited Mother Emanuel for a campaign event.

“I’ve got class,” she told her friends, who didn’t pry.

She appreciated that Biden was trying to restrict access to guns in the face of endless gridlock. Her sister had kept her apprised of everyone’s stances. But to Hali, no politician was saying with appropriate passion what she longed to hear — that gun violence was the most urgent issue in America, that it should be treated like a national emergency, that people like her, millions of people, must cope with loss every second of their lives. It’s always humming in the background, threatening to spill into conversations that should be mundane. It’s tattooed on her left hand: “Angel Energy,” because, her family says, she and her mother shared the same gentle aura.

The last politician who inspired her was President Barack Obama, when he sang “Amazing Grace” at the memorial for Mother Emanuel’s slain pastor. Hali stood in the crowd while the whole world watched and, in that moment, it felt like there was nothing more important than stopping the bloodshed.

Haley had been there, too. The root of the problem, the former governor said last month, was “the cancer that is mental health.”

“You can be mentally ill and hurt no one,” Hali imagined saying if they ever crossed paths again. “What makes you a threat is the gun.”

Her iPhone clock signaled it was nearly time for warm-ups, so she made her way over to the gym. Her volleyball team, the Koalas, had a new coach, and Hali didn’t know much about him yet — just that he’d come from Los Angeles.

She stepped onto the hardwood court, the first player here, and saw him emerge from his cinder block office.

“Hey, Hali!” he called out, and they started chatting about his move.

Drew Burdette, 35, was wondering if he could vote later this month in the primary. He’d lived in South Carolina a decade ago and might still be registered here as a Republican, he explained, but would back anyone against Trump.

“I like anybody who can find some way to make it harder to get guns,” Hali replied. “Make it so hard that people don’t even want a gun anymore.”

Her mother died, she told him, at Mother Emanuel."

Charleston shooting survivors feel ignored by GOP presidential candidates - The Washington Post

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