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The conversation we should all be having about gun violence and firearm safety

A City in Arms

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2017 was barely an hour old by the time the Charleston area recorded its first fatal shooting of the new year. Just after 1 a.m., North Charleston police found 21-year-old Emory Sharod Lewis lying in a pool of his own blood outside of a convenience store on Dorchester Road. With a neck wound sustained from a .40 caliber round, Lewis was declared dead at the scene. According to detectives, witnesses saw the deceased and another young man, Branden Prioleau, arguing moments before things turned deadly. At just 19 years old, Prioleau now awaits trial for murder and possession of a weapon during a violent crime.

Much like the state and nation in which it resides, Charleston is a city awash in guns. For some, they represent liberty and protection, while others in the community can only recognize the dangers associated with firearms.

A brief look at a single 24-hour period in early February shows the diverse range of crimes and accidents that involved firearms throughout the city.

In a narrow stretch of homes in the peninsula's upper neck just west of Morrison Drive, a woman discovered a pink and silver Taurus .380 pistol lying in her yard. Later that day, outside of a West Ashley auto parts store off Savannah Highway, an alleged dispute over money was cut short when a stray gunshot shattered a car window. At that same moment, in an apartment near Hampton Park, another stand-off would end without a single shot fired.

Arriving home just after 4 p.m., a 52-year-old woman found the items in her living room out of place. She called out her son's name, but heard nothing in response. She later told police it was at this moment that her estranged husband emerged from her bedroom with a pistol in his hand. In no kind words, he told her to sit down. The woman was allegedly held captive for the next two and half hours in her own home. At one point, the woman said her husband placed the weapon on the arm of the sofa. Grabbing the gun, she pointed it at him and demanded he leave.

The following afternoon, in West Ashley, a group of teens were hanging out in their friend's room. One had dozed off while watching his friend play video games. The third young man stood across the room, studying a pistol left out on the dresser. He assumed the .45 caliber Hardballer was unloaded, he later told police, which is why he thought nothing of pulling the trigger. The bullet would pass in and out of his friend's right leg just below the knee. According to an incident report, the boy's mother asked police to take the pistol with them. It had belonged to her deceased husband, and her son was always playing with it, she said. The mother added that she didn't want something like this to happen again.

This is just a snapshot of one day in Charleston, but it does offer an idea of how varied events surrounding guns can be. And just as these stories range from criminal to merely circumstantial, so too do our feelings toward firearms. From women looking for some means of protection and sense of security to a collector and crafter who espouses responsibility, firearm owners cannot simply be excluded from the modern discussion on gun control. In a heated debate that has too often cast both sides in stark black and white, the national conversation over firearms ignores the voices of the individuals in the middle open to compromise. Within these shades of gray perhaps lies the possibility of bridging the gun debate and finding meaningful solutions.

Why we carry

Nancy Clair, a co-owner of C&S shooting sports, says  competition shooting is her goal - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Nancy Clair, a co-owner of C&S shooting sports, says competition shooting is her goal

Located in an industrial complex off of Rivers Avenue, C&S Shooting Sports indoor gun range is a high-tech firearms mecca, where everyone — from the North Charleston SWAT team to dental hygienists — come to fire off a few rounds after work. At 6 p.m. on a Thursday night, the range is full. Sandy Clair, one of the four owners of the family-run operation, has set out a table of snacks. Bella, the range dog, happily plods around the store, nudging customers to pet her silky ears. Looking around, one could forget that they're a few hundred feet away from gunfire except for the steady burst of rounds that echo against the gleaming glass cases of handguns.

"Our top-seller is probably the Sig Sauer P938 9mm," says an employee. "We might sell five to six a month of that one." The Sig Sauer website says that this particular gun is "easy to conceal and even easier to shoot."

The range doesn't have an official ladies' night — they only opened about six months ago — but they host informal gatherings of women shooters due to an increase in interest from female customers.

While gun owners overall are disproportionately white, older men living in the rural South, there is a growing diversity among those who possess firearms. A recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern University found that of the almost 4,000 Americans surveyed, a distinct group of women arose among those who reported only owning handguns. These female gunowners are more likely to live in urban areas and less likely to have grown up with guns in their home. The study also found that almost two out of three gun owners reported personal protection as a primary reason for owning a weapon.

This map shows the locations of reported gun-related deaths for 2015 and 2016. In total, the tri-county area witnessed more than 130 gun homicides over that two-year period. - SOURCE: GUN VIOLENCE ARCHIVE
  • Source: Gun Violence Archive
  • This map shows the locations of reported gun-related deaths for 2015 and 2016. In total, the tri-county area witnessed more than 130 gun homicides over that two-year period.

The women at C&S have different reasons for being here, but they're all open, relaxed, and comfortable. Janet Porter says she cried and cried the first time she shot a gun: "My boyfriend told me he'd never seen someone shake so hard." Porter grew up in Michigan in what she calls a "gun-free household." As an adult, Porter says she had no experience with guns until her ex-husband allegedly threatened her with firearms.

"I never wanted to touch one. I always imagined I would accidentally hurt myself or someone I love," she says. Now, Porter has her Concealed Weapons Permit (CWP) and is in the market for a handgun to carry on her person or in her purse.

"I'm a newbie," she says, "I've only been shooting since July. It's so empowering. The fact that I overcame my fear ... I mean, I wasn't scared of guns. I was terrified. I now have the ability to protect myself and my family if I need to. The fear doesn't have control over me anymore."

Those at C&S not quite ready to work with live rounds can try the simulator first. The gun just shoots compressed air, but it's a real gun, so the sensation is very similar to being on the actual range. A woman in a pantsuit and heels stands on the red line in the darkened room, her hips square to the screen, feet slightly spread. She's on her last simulation. Her shots ring out — Boom. Boom. Boom.

"Now, are you ready for the range?" asks Nancy Clair, Sandy's daughter-in-law. Nancy, dressed in flannel and jeans, her hair tucked casually behind her ears, is all smiles — a welcome and warm face for anyone new to the gun scene.

"I married into a gun family," says Nancy, who has a CWP and carries a P229 Sig Sauer. She met her future husband, Taylor Clair, in the seventh grade, and by ninth grade they were sweethearts.

"Our first date, we went shooting with his family," recalls Nancy. "I didn't grow up with guns, and I've only been shooting consistently for the past four years. I've had a blast with it. I really like the target practice, accuracy part of it. Competition shooting would be my goal."

Porter hasn't used the simulator yet, so she steps up to the line. The first scenario involves "pop ups," human-shaped targets popping up out of the ground like whack-a-mole. Porter takes 30 shots, has 24 hits.

"That's good!" Nancy says as she looks on. "Let's see, the computer is telling me that's a 92 percent. That's great."

Porter readies herself for a more complex shooting situation. The simulator brings up two different scenarios. In the first "ambush" video, a burglar has broken into the garage and is rifling through the homeowner's car. Porter squares up, arms locked and straight, knees slightly bent, waiting for the man on the video to turn around. The man spots Porter and runs off. She lowers her arms.

"If he had a weapon ... I don't know," she says. "It was my car, not my home or my people."

In the next "mass shooter" scenario, Porter says, "OK, now I'm sweatin'." As she approaches a hospital, patients and law enforcement lay in pools of blood outside the entrance. "We put people in situations like this so they can see what law enforcement feels like, how it's a split second decision," Nancy tells the group. There's a lot of build up in this video. It's longer than the rest. Porter walks up several flights of stairs, walks through a door, and enters a wing of the hospital where bodies are scattered. She turns, and the shooter, armed with an assault rifle, fires at her. "Wow," Porter sighs, relaxing her stance, "I would be dead right now."

A model gun owner

While many of the women at C&S are just beginning to develop an appreciation for firearms, others in Charleston have had guns in their lives as long as they can remember. Eric Beach, a 28-year-old studying to be a civil engineer at The Citadel, grew up on 96 acres in Walterboro. He recalls his father and uncle hunting when he was younger, but he didn't become interested in firearms until he was older. He estimates that he now purchases about three or four guns a year. He also assembles his own AR-15s from parts that he finds on sale.

As a gun owner and avid collector, Eric Beach stresses the importance of responsibility - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • As a gun owner and avid collector, Eric Beach stresses the importance of responsibility

U.S. gun owners surveyed by Harvard and Northeastern reported possessing an average of more than four firearms. Researchers estimate that approximately one half of the 265 million guns in America are held by 86 percent of gun owners. The other half of firearms in civilian hands are believed to belong to 14 percent of gun owners — or roughly 3 percent of the U.S. population. Other than personal protection, the most common reasons for owning a firearm were hunting and collecting. Beach's interest in guns is a bit more complicated.

"My best friend in high school, his dad was with the sheriff's office, and so they spent a lot of time around firearms and the range, working on a lot of safety stuff. He kind of took me under his wing, as well, told me a lot of safety things," Beach says of his friend. "He's an electrical engineer. I'm studying for civil engineering, so we've always had that kind of tinkering mindset. We like to take things apart, put them back together, hope it works. That's probably what really got me into cars and firearms."

Between August 2016 and the end of January 2017, more than 110 firearms were reported 
stolen to the Charleston Police Department, 
with almost half coming from unlocked vehicles and homes.
  • Between August 2016 and the end of January 2017, more than 110 firearms were reported stolen to the Charleston Police Department, with almost half coming from unlocked vehicles and homes.

In between working on his degree, Beach waits tables at Hyman's Seafood and Another Broken Egg downtown. He and his wife both have concealed weapons permits. Two years ago on her birthday, Beach's wife, a nurse at MUSC, didn't want to go out for a nice dinner. Instead, she asked Beach to take her to the class to earn a CWP. Beach, who mostly owns pistols, but also counts two shotguns and a few AR-15s among his collection, says he carries a gun on him at all times when he's not at a school, federal building, or any other location where weapons are prohibited.

"It's more than just a hobby. There's always the self-defense aspect of it, as well. We don't live in Mayberry. The world is crazy. You're probably never going to be in a position to draw, but if you're there and you don't have it, it's one of those cases you might regret it," he says. "Waiting tables, you're a target. You walk out of a restaurant with a couple hundred bucks in your pocket on the weekend, somebody could take that if they want. And if they have four or five people, they're going to take it regardless."

Beach is among the majority of gun owners who cite protection as an important reason for possessing a firearm, he also falls into the 5 percent of reported gun owners who said they had personally sold a firearm in the past five years. South Carolina law does not require background checks for person-to-person firearm sales, instead prohibiting any dealer from "knowingly" selling a firearm to a person convicted of a violent crime.

"I've sold and bought private party with people. It typically starts with a text message, email, and if they form complete sentences, I call them. If they sound like a decent person, I'll meet them. But it boils down to covering your butt, as well. I always do a bill of sale. Take a picture of their driver's licenses, I.D., stuff like that," says Beach. "Worst case scenario, if somebody came back knocking on my door saying, 'Hey, you know we have on record that you purchased this firearm. It was used in a crime. Can you explain how it got from point A to point B?' I can check my files ... Private party sales, you've got to be responsible."

Beach is reluctant to talk about gun control efforts in absolutes. He says he wouldn't be bothered if new legislation changed the way he sold firearms, as long as certain exemptions were put in place, such as allowing him to gift his little brother a shotgun for his 18th birthday.

"Worst case scenario, I'd have to go to a gun shop or somebody who has a federal firearms license and just do the paperwork to make it legal. It's an inconvenience. But it's not the end of the world," says Beach, who supports background checks as a way to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals. "That's one of the things that people would say is trampling on my rights, but I don't care. I mean, you've got to draw a line somewhere, but in the middle is always better."

As a firearm owner, Beach says he receives a wide range of reactions from people — some judgemental, some not — often depending on their own experiences. He knows the problems that many people have with him aren't personal. They're broad and wide-ranging.

"A lot of people think that because of what they hear, the extremes on every side, that gun owners are vigilantes looking to shoot somebody. There's a lot more to it than just wanting to hurt somebody," he says. "No one, hopefully, wants to hurt somebody. It's like sports cars. Unfortunately, my father in law passed away in my last car. He didn't respect it, driving too fast, and he lost control of it ... There's a certain amount of respect that comes with things in life. There's a certain amount of fear that drives some people, as well. You just kind of have to balance in between them."

For Beach, the most important part of owning a gun is responsibility — something that some gun owners fail to recognize. For example, during the six-month period between August 2015 and January of this year, a City Paper examination tallied more than 110 firearms reported stolen to the Charleston Police Department. Of that number, almost half were taken from unlocked cars and homes. Unlike licensed firearms dealers, there is no law in South Carolina requiring private gun owners to report their weapons stolen.

When it comes to the conversation surrounding gun control, Beach understands that not everyone is going to agree with him on every issue, regardless of where they fall in the debate. Like most Americans, he lands somewhere in between the polarizing talking points that divide the country. He also believes that it's important for gun owners to understand why exactly they wish to possess a firearm — because not everyone carries a gun with the best of intentions.

"A thing that I've noticed is that people ask if you feel braver with a gun. No. If you buy a gun and carry a gun to feel brave, you're not fixing the problem. You're putting yourself in a situation for more problems," says Beach. "I'm no more brave than I was before. I'm no less scared. I wouldn't go walking down a street I wouldn't have walked down before just because I have a gun on me. It changes nothing. It shouldn't change you as a person. If it does, that goes back to responsibility, where your mind is, and why you have it."

A domestic matter

Alicia Rahiem is a gun owner and domestic violence outreach coordinator with Project Unity USA - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Alicia Rahiem is a gun owner and domestic violence outreach coordinator with Project Unity USA

Alicia Rahiem, a domestic violence outreach coordinator at Project Unity USA, never planned to have guns in her home. But in 1990, when Rahiem was a military police officer, her then-husband was sent to Desert Storm.

"There were break-ins in my neighborhood. I was alone in the home with a six-month-old and a two-year-old. One time a man beat on my door, trying to get in. That weekend I went out and bought a gun," says Rahiem, who now owns nine guns, a mix of pistols and long guns. "There's a part of me that still hates guns, but then there's the reality that they are sources of protection."

Rahiem says that in her line of work she sees guns being circulated in a number of unregulated ways, from purchasing weapons off the internet to people in the community peddling stolen firearms in the street. Rahiem, though, does not buy into the argument that stronger gun control regulation is futile just because "bad guys will get guns no matter what."

"People can make excuses all day," says Rahiem, "but we have got to start somewhere."

At Project Unity, Rahiem works to connect citizens and law enforcement so that everyone is on the same team, working toward the same goals. She wants people from the community with information about illegal gun sales to feel comfortable enough to share what they know with law enforcement.

"There's always a source. These firearms aren't just appearing out of nowhere," she says. "I'm OK with baby steps. Whether that means taking out the internet sales, or finding the guy on the street who sells them out of his car. If we can take one of these illegal avenues out of the equation, for the future of my children, just give me one."

Even when people do pass a background check and purchase guns at a legitimate storefront, Rahiem argues that there's no guarantee that they'll be at the range for target practice or learning how best to handle a weapon.

"Many gun owners have no idea about the safety measures that need to go into place. That's why we see so many accidental shootings, so many children getting hurt," says Rahiem, who keeps locks on all her guns and stores her handguns in a lockbox. "Background checks and registration are important, but safety classes should be implemented. I don't understand why people don't want to take safety classes."

Rahiem is a fan of the new West Ashley Low Country Virtual Firing Range. Like the simulator at C&S, this operation puts participants in scenarios where they have to decide if and when to shoot. Although Rahiem believes in responsible, law-abiding individuals being able to own guns, she doesn't see any reason to carry a firearm on her person and remains concerned by others who choose to remain armed at all times.

Because she works with victims of domestic violence, Rahiem has been in courtrooms where the abuser's right to possess a gun is debated. Rahiem has seen a rise in gun ownership — not only with abusers, but with victims as well. Although South Carolina has enacted laws prohibiting the possession of a firearm by someone convicted of certain domestic violence charges, the law does not extend to non-household members, which includes dating partners. The law does prohibit those subject to a domestic violence order of protection, but the responsibility of seizing a firearm rests with the court.

"I've been in a courtroom where an order of protection has been issued and still the judge says, 'Well, he won't be able to hunt, and that's an issue,'" says Rahiem, who has also witnessed great debate about what happens when a gun is ordered to be removed from the home. "Those involved in the case will ask, 'Who is going to take the gun?' or they'll say 'Well, we're not responsible for that.'"

Rahiem says she's even seen cases where an order of protection has been issued and no one asks if there's a gun in the house. As a victim advocate and gun owner, Rahiem finds herself in a unique position to better understand both sides of the debate. Still, she urges others that more guns in more hands is not the answer, as she has experienced firsthand how gun violence can destroy a person, a family, an entire community.

"My only nephew was a senior in college, in the ROTC program, and was two months shy of being commissioned into the Army when he was shot and killed," says Rahiem. "My nephew was not doing drugs. He was not on the street. He was about to be commissioned into the Army to defend his country. And he lost his life in America."

A medical perspective

As a fourth-year resident at MUSC going into trauma surgery, Dr. Ashley Hink sees the toll that gun violence takes on Charleston. Not a shift goes by in the trauma center where she doesn't witness the pain and devastation that a gun can inflict on the human body.

Dr. Ashley Hink treats a wide variety of patients at MUSC affected by gun violence - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Dr. Ashley Hink treats a wide variety of patients at MUSC affected by gun violence

She treats victims of accidental shootings, attempted suicides, victims of domestic violence, but more than anything she cares for those who have fallen prey to community violence. These are the victims who get caught in the crossfire at a party, shot while walking down the street, or gunned down in a drive-by. Of course, with about two-thirds of firearm deaths in the country resulting from suicide and a vast majority of self-inflicted gunshot wounds proving fatal, there are many victims who never make it to the trauma center. This is just a sad reminder that the diversity that can be found among gun owners is mirrored in the victims of gun violence.

"Violence crosses so many spectrums of society, and its ideology and causes cross so many spectrums. Because of that, it isn't owned by any one entity in our society," says Hink. "It's really complex, and I do think it's really overwhelming because behavior is hard to change in people's environments, and influences are really hard to change. But my counter argument is that some people thought the same of smoking. We've been able to dramatically reduce the number of people in our country that smoke, and the same can be said for a lot of other public health problems."

Working in health services research while earning her master's degree at Emory, Hink developed an interest in violence as a public health problem. Furthering her career as an advocate and medical professional, she soon realized how many people are truly affected by suicides and homicides caused by firearms every year. From a research perspective, Hink believes that the political nature of the gun violence debate has caused many to avoid the issue, but she feels there has been an awakening in the past few years. Physicians and researchers are becoming more and more willing to acknowledge that gun violence is a major public health issue in the United States — and like any other disease, a cure or means of prevention is needed.

"When anyone is passionate about a public health problem, whether it be obesity or diabetes or breast cancer or HIV, our goal is to find ways to make it better. Our goal is to find ways to prevent it. Our goal is to find ways to cure it," says Hink. "When it comes to firearms research, our goal is to find ways to prevent people from being injured or killed. Part of that is to advocate for our findings and research that will protect people. Some of the research in the last number of years has shown the benefit of expanding firearms background checks to include all gun sales, not just for federally licensed dealers."

Part of the issue with developing research to better understand gun violence in America stems from the Dickey Amendment, which declared that "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control." The problem with legislation such as this is that it sends a message to researchers that regardless of what studies may prove, all gun control efforts are off limits.

"We know from research that we probably could prevent people who are very high-risk offenders from hurting individuals by having universal background checks that would not impact legally responsible owners, but would impact people who are trying to illegally obtain guns from getting them," says Hink. "It doesn't close down the black market. And there is certainly a lot of violence that is tied to firearms that are exchanged in the black market and from stolen weapons, from weapons that are handed over illegally to family members and friends. Part of the way we have to deal with that is by actually having stronger penalties for people who are illegally trading firearms and actually closing loopholes."

As with most things, managing gun violence and the flow of firearms in America comes down to money. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) — the lead federal agency charged with enforcing federal laws related to firearms — is woefully understaffed. For example, a 2016 Congressional report states that the "ATF has maintained that the agency cannot meet its goal of inspecting every federal firearm licensee for compliance on a three-year cycle." In 2015, ATF agents were only able to complete 6 percent of inspections of the nation's federal firearm licensees. Add that to the rising number of firearms being pumped to the civilian gun stock each year, peaking in 2013 with 16 million firearms introduced to the U.S., and the need for funding the ATF becomes even more obvious. The same can be said for supporting research organizations such as the CDC and National Institutes of Health, which have both struggled to find the necessary financial support to combat gun violence. According to the previously mentioned Congressional report, the Obama administration requested significant funding to sponsor research into preventing gun violence in the years following the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., "but Congress did not appropriate funding for these purposes, possibly because some members of Congress have viewed CDC- and NIH-sponsored research in the past as insufficiently objective in its support for greater gun control."

"I think people need to first come to the recognition that this is a problem in our society, and there are ways that we can allow all responsible owners to own guns, but also combat the issue of firearm deaths. They're not two mutually exclusive entities," says Hink. "I really do think that people have more in common on both sides of this argument than they realize, and it's sad I think because if people would just talk, they'd realize that we could probably get far more accomplished."

Final shots

Over the past 20 months, Meghan Alexander has become the leading voice for gun reform in Charleston. The founder of Arm in Arm, formerly Gun Sense SC, has built upon the concerns of local citizens following the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church to establish a movement toward meaningful change throughout the state. This year, South Carolina legislators will consider several bills backed by Arm in Arm, aimed at expanding background check requirements. This proposed legislation would extend background checks to all gun sales, including person-to-person deals and gun shows. Other proposed bills would also require that a criminal background check be completed before any buyer finally receives a firearm, and implement a tiered penalty system for those convicted of unlawful carrying of a firearm.

Arm in Arm President Meghan Alexander calls for expanded  background checks - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Arm in Arm President Meghan Alexander calls for expanded background checks

Alexander calls herself an "accidental activist," saying that most people assume that she falls on the far-left, anti-gun side of the political spectrum because she started Arm in Arm. The truth is Alexander grew up around guns. She shot trap and skeet with her dad and says that part of her life came pretty naturally for her. Even now, as one of the most vocal proponents for gun reform in the state, she understands the importance of balancing the concerns of all South Carolinians.

"One of the things that we're realizing is that the more we reach out to gun owners and really have discussions with people, the more they're willing to listen because we're not asking for a whole range of new laws. These are simply existing laws that just need we need to close the gap. There's a middle line," she says. "The common ground really started when we realized one thing: We are all fearful for our families."

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