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After Roof trial, SC addressing faith, violence

Meg Kinnard
Associated Press

Columbia, S.C. — The federal trial of the South Carolina man who slaughtered nine Bible study participants has come and gone, with Dylann Roof’s death sentence assuring he will spend the rest of his limited days in custody.

But the June 2015 shootings at Emanuel AME continue to prompt a conversation about the uneasy intersection of faith and gun violence, as thousands of worshippers around South Carolina gather this weekend to memorialize crime victims and call for reform.

It isn’t just the church slaughter that has sounded the alarm bells. The Center for American Progress found South Carolina ranked sixth in the nation for the overall rate of gun violence, noting someone was killed with a gun in the state roughly every 13 hours.

Events throughout the state are part of Stand Up Sunday, launched last year by a group meeting in the very room where the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight others were gunned down as they prayed. Pinckney’s lifelong best friend, fellow AME Pastor Kylon Middleton, is now heading the group he says provides an opportunity for people of faith to stand up for those they’ve lost and talk about real solutions to problems of gun violence.

Middleton was recently chosen to head the board for Arm-In-Arm: South Carolinians for Responsible Gun Ownership, a grassroots group of more than 1,200 faith leaders, gun owners, teachers and others across South Carolina that is coordinating the weekend’s events. What they all have in common, Middleton says, is a desire to find ways to cut down on gun violence.

Prosecutors who secured a death sentence against Roof argued the 22-year-old white supremacist researched and picked his victims because, as loyal, churchgoing folk, he figured they’d be less likely to resist his attack. He fired his first shot at Pinckney as the worshippers closed their eyes in the evening’s final prayer.

Stand Up Sunday isn’t about encouraging people to arm themselves as they worship, although the group counts among its members people who have purchased weapons and practiced using them in real-life situations. This weekend, congregants are signing petitions and talking about ways to cut down on violent gun deaths in South Carolina.

At Charleston’s Mt. Zion AME, where Middleton is pastor, the altar will be decorated with white crosses bearing the names of South Carolina gun violence victims, whose names will be read aloud in Sunday’s service. Choir members will sing a song specially written to talk about gun violence in South Carolina.

“It allows us the opportunity to articulate their story and to give them a space to at least publicly be acknowledged in their grief, and to move the pendulum in another direction toward activism,” Middleton told The Associated Press recently.

Roof, who was sentenced to death last month in a federal trial, should never have been able to purchase a gun because of a prior drug arrest. But authorities later told The Associated Press that, due to a combination of errors, Roof managed to buy one anyway.

Victims’ families are suing the FBI for negligence in allowing the sale. FBI Director James Comey has said Roof should have never been allowed to buy the gun and promised a full review.

Advocates for tighter gun regulations have pushed for more days to be added onto South Carolina’s three-day waiting period, but that legislation has failed. There are several bills pending in South Carolina’s recently reconvened Legislature dealing with guns, including a measure that would require a national instant background check before sales, exchanges or transfers.

Gerald Malloy, a former Senate colleague of Pinckney’s and also his personal friend, has made such a proposal this year.

Existing laws, Middleton said, “are useless unless the gaps in our existing background system are fixed.”