Charleston church shooting: Hate crime, gun crime? Does it matter?

The fatal shooting of nine worshippers at a South Carolina church once again shows the futility of U.S. gun laws, Neil Macdonald writes. For those keeping count, it was Barack Obama's sixth address to the nation following a mass murder.

South Carolina church shooting once again shows the impotence of U.S. gun laws

Parishioners comfort one another during a memorial service for the people killed Wednesday during a prayer meeting inside the historic black church in Charleston, S.C. (The Associated Press)

Earlier today, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch declared that acts such as the mass murder of worshippers in a black church in Charleston, allegedly by a man fond of white supremacist symbols, "have no place in a civilized society."

She's right, of course. But a reasonable case can be made that South Carolina is less a civilized society than a predator's paradise.

In a civilized society, people have some assurance that laws, and the agents who enforce those laws, will shield them from predators, protecting the weak being the essence of civilization.

But even leaving aside its ugly history of race relations — the Confederate flag still flies in front of the state capital in Columbia — South Carolina, like many other U.S. states, is a place where the love of guns trumps the protection of innocents.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, the state is home to 19 hate groups, including active Ku Klux Klan chapters. It is also one of only five states that have no hate crimes law.

In South Carolina, you don't need a permit to buy a gun — pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, whatever.

South Carolina law buys into the "stand your ground" defence, meaning you have a legal right to kill anyone you think is a threat. It also lets you kill anybody you think is a threat to somebody else.

In other words, it officially encourages vigilante behaviour.

True, you can't carry a pistol around without a permit in South Carolina, as you can in some other states. But State Governor Nikki Haley wants to change that.

The right to bear arms is "critical," she said on her 2010 campaign website.

"I hold a concealed weapons permit myself, and … we need to make the rules that govern carrying far more simple."

Ladies night at the gun range

Haley loves guns so much she's constantly posing for cameras with every piece of ordnance she can get her hands on. With a great big grin.

"Lucky Santa didn't bring this!" chirped the cutline in a 2013 news report featuring Haley smiling happily behind a heavy machinegun. 

What Santa did bring Haley, though, was a Beretta PX4 Storm pistol, which she had just tweeted about two days earlier.

Which brings us to Dylann Storm Roof, the prime suspect in Wednesday's slaughter.

There he stands in his Facebook picture, posing in a bog somewhere, the flags of apartheid South Africa and the white-ruled former Rhodesia stitched ostentatiously onto his jacket. News photo of the month, that one.

Dylann Storm Roof, 21, has been identified as the suspect in the shooting at a Charleston, S.C., black church that left nine people dead. The flags on his jacket are from apartheid-era South Africa (top) and Rhodesia, which is now known as Zimbabwe. (Facebook)

In April, he turned 21. And, just like Nikki Haley's Santa, somebody thought it would be a good idea to give him a .45-calibre pistol. Seriously. A monster of a handgun.

Here you go, laddie-buck, here's something you can really put to good use. The governor, by the way, thinks you should be able to carry it around in your pocket.

One of the first news organizations to report Roof's birthday present was the Charleston Post and Courier, a newspaper that has a Pulitzer Prize to its credit.

On the front page today, just over the headline CHURCH ATTACK KILLS 9, it featured a peel-off advertisement for "Ladies Night" at the ATP Gun Shop and Range: "$30 gets you everything!" Gun, ammo, even a souvenir T-shirt.

The newspaper at least had the grace to apologize for that.

Arm the pastors

Meanwhile, at the White House, the president was raising his civilized voice, once again.

"I've had to make comments like this too many times," Barack Obama told reporters, rather plaintively. He has spoken after mass murders at least six times during his presidency.

"At some point as a country, we have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries."

Can't argue with that.

U.S. President Barack Obama talks about the shooting deaths of nine people at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, Thursday. It is the sixth time he has addressed the nation about a mass murder during his presidency. (REUTERS)

Obama went on to say that "it is in our power to do something about it."

But it's actually not in his power to do anything about it. He tried, after the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.

The country was outraged. Most Americans agreed with him. Then the National Rifle Association started making some calls and Congress punked out.

Why would anyone think it'll be any different this time? In his next breath, Obama seemed to suggest just that.

"The politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it."

So, Obama and his attorney general resorted to the usual drivel about the need for "healing." Which the survivors of this church shooting may well do. Nine worshippers won't.

As for Haley, sobbing at a news conference, she announced that South Carolina's "heart and soul is broken." But she still evidently thinks Roof had a natural right to carry his gun around.

For its part, the NRA was keeping a discreet silence, as it usually does after mass gun murders. (Its website, bizarrely, carried the picture of a black man, and this quote: "No law abiding American should be forced to face evil with empty hands.")

But if the NRA's post-Newtown declaration was any guide, let me predict what it will say about South Carolina.

It will call it a "terrible tragedy," and it will say the whole thing could have been averted had the worshippers only been armed with sufficiently powerful weapons themselves.

It will probably also urge church leaderships across America to, at the very least, to arm and train pastors and deacons, and it will offer any advice or facilities needed for that.

Bishop E.W. Jackson of the Called Church in Virginia is already urging exactly that.

Because, you know, that's the civilized thing to do.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.