Racism or guns in Charleston Church shooting: which played a bigger role?

Politicians, primarily Democrats, and cable news commentators have tried to look beyond the individual pathology of Dylann Roof to explore root social causes for his monstrous gunning down of nine African-Americans at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Some say a lack of gun control laws is the culprit, others say racism, while still others assign equal blame to both these American plagues.

Evidence is piling up that Roof is a virulent racist. Friends said Roof would routinely spew racial invectives. He is reported to have exclaimed that he killed the nine people at the Church solely because they were black. There can be no doubt that his rabid racial anger found encouragement in the distorted view of African-Americans visible in American police dramas; the racial coding in the comments of Republican politicians; the self-justifying aspects of our system of mass incarceration; the prevalence of the Confederate flag and other symbols of slavery in his home state; and the several white power and other hate groups in operation (although the police have yet to find any connection between Roof and any of these groups).

There can be no doubt that Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel AME confident that he was morally right in the actions he was about to take, and that his moral fortitude fed not just on his own extreme racism, but also on the acceptance and promotion of racism, both explicitly and implicitly, in our society.

But let’s ask ourselves this question: Could he have faced those nine people alone and killed them without a gun? Could he have killed them if he weren’t a racist?

The answers, of course, are “no, he could not have done it alone without a gun” and “yes, there are many reasons people kill.”

No matter how much we decry Dylann Roof’s disgusting beliefs and no matter how much we do to eradicate racism in American society and institutions, we will not reduce future mass murders and other gun killings until we make it harder for people to obtain guns and carry them in public.

Look at Roof’s history, so similar in some ways to Adam Lanza, Craig Hicks and other mass murderers: Roof is an anti-social loner who repeated 9th grade.  He had previously been arrested for trespassing and drug charges. His situation had deteriorated recently and he was living out of his car at least on a part-time basis.

How did this wacko get a gun?

Some newspapers report his father gave him a .45-caliber gun for his 21st birthday, while others are saying he bought one with the money his parents gave him for his birthday. Either way, it’s a disturbing indictment of the ease at which people can purchase weapons in most of the country.

The current line from the gun lobby and their elected factotums is that when people carry guns, they scare some criminals and can defend themselves from others. Their former glib homily “When we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns” has evolved into an assertion that owning and carrying guns reduce crime.

The facts do not support this outrageous assertion. Not many studies are done in the United States of the impact of guns because Congress passed a law forbidding government support of such research. But the research that does exist is clear: Increased gun ownership does not reduce crime. For example, the recent What Caused the Crime Decline? by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School analyzes the various factors that may have contributed to the decline in the crime rate over the past 30 years and finds that the radical loosening of guns laws over the same time frame has had zero impact on lowering crime rates.  Other research tells us that throughout the world and across the United States, the more guns are in private ownership in a country or area, the higher the total rate of injuries and deaths from guns will be.

During this period of public mourning for the slaughtered innocents at Emanuel AME it is right and proper for all clear-thinking Americans to contemplate the severe damage that racism has wrecked on individuals, communities and the very fabric of American society. We should rededicate ourselves to ending racism and that rededication should include specific acts, such as working to end the system of mass incarceration, ending Draconian voting laws meant to keep minorities from voting and the flying of the Confederate in any public or government area. We should work to end racism because it’s the moral and legal thing to do.

But we can’t forget that the primary—perhaps only–reason that Dylann Roof killed nine people in a house of worship was not because he hated African-Americans, but because he carried and used a gun. If we want to end mass murders, we have to instill greater gun controls.

2 thoughts on “Racism or guns in Charleston Church shooting: which played a bigger role?

  1. Easy access to guns is a national conspiracy. But Dylann Roof killed because of racism, not access to guns. Timothy McVeigh’s domestic terrorism was carried out with a homemade bomb. Dylann Roof could have killed those in the Emanuel AME church with a bomb, just as four little girls were killed in a Birmingham church by a bomb. Additionally, it may be premature to label Dylann Roof “mentally ill.” Racism is sick, but not psychosis. It comforts us to alienate him from us, but he is the product of all the societal pathology you chronicle. That pathology, whether racism, misogyny, religious hatred, is not mental illness. Sadly, it’s just not that uncommon.

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