President Obama used his national podium to express personal grief about the South Carolina church shootings that left nine dead, and then raise the specter of gun control, saying such “mass murder” just doesn’t happen in other countries.
Obama first said he and his wife knew killed Emanuel African Episcopal Church Pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney personally, as well as several in the congregation.
“And to say our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families and their communities doesn’t say enough to convey the sadness … and the anger that we feel,” Obama said.
He then referenced the historical aspects of the predominantly black church, and its role in combating slavery and furthering freedom. Shortly after, Obama brought up the gun control.
“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” he said. “We do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun. But let’s be clear: at some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.”
Obama then called on Americans to “acknowledge” that fact and start to “shift how we think about gun violence collectively.”
The alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, is not believed to have purchased the gun, however. Various media said his father had given the 21-year-old a .45 caliber gun as a birthday gift.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the F.B.I., and the United States Attorney’s Office for South Carolina have opened a “hate”-crime investigation into the shooting.
“We will now be looking at all of the facts, all of the motivations that led this individual, if in fact he is the shooter,” to carry out the killings, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said at a news conference.
Shortly after Obama’s remarks, hundreds of politicians, religious leaders and community members filled the pews at Morris Brown AME church in downtown Charleston for a vigil to honor the nine people who lost their lives.
John Richard Bryant, a regional AME bishop from Chicago, said he couldn’t believe some state legislatures were trying to loosen restrictions on gun ownership.
“We are losing more of our citizens at home than on battlefields abroad,” he said. “There’s violence in our playgrounds, violence in our homes, violence in our schools. Now there’s violence in our churches. And the one common denominator is the gun.”
His remarks on gun control drew two loud standing ovations from the worshippers. Some Republican lawmakers — including Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of North Charleston and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson — remained seated.
After the vigil, Scott said he attended to support his community. “I wasn’t there to make political points,” he said. “Staying seated was best thing to do,” he told The State newspaper.
“He was hoping to divide our state and country,” Gov. Nikki Haley told the church, “but all he’s going to do is bring us closer.”
Haley praised the attendees for honoring the fallen.
“There is not one color, there is not one gender, there is not one political party. This is neighbors loving neighbors. People taking care of people. And all of us saying, no more,” said Haley.
The Rev. Charles Watkins, pastor at Morris Brown AME Church, called the shooting an act of “domestic terrorism.”
“It has been a long and miserable night,” he told the standing-room only crowd.
Pastor Thomas A. Dixon, a civil rights activist and community organizer, urged the city’s black residents to “keep your emotions under control.”
“We’ve been consistently putting forward a message of remain reserved and stay calm,” said Dixon.
Mr. Dixon called the attack “senseless” and a “horrific crime,” but stressed similar attacks have targeted groups other than blacks.
“It is a crime that has happened in Jewish synagogues, Buddhist temples, Catholic churches and movie theaters and now it has come to Charleston to this AME church,” he said.
Charleston County coroner Rae Wooten identified all nine victims in a press conference Thursday:
State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor.
Cynthia Hurd, 54, St. Andrews regional branch manager for the Charleston County Public Library system.
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a church pastor, speech therapist and coach of the girls’ track and field team at Goose Creek High School.
Tywanza Sanders, 26, who had a degree in business administration from Allen University, where Pinckney also attended.
Ethel Lance, 70, a retired Gilliard Center employee who worked recently as a church janitor.
Susie Jackson, 87, Lance’s cousin who was named by a relative and was a longtime church member.
Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49, who retired in 2005 as Charleston County director of the Community Development Block Grant Program.
Mira Thompson, 59, a pastor at the church.
Daniel Simmons Sr., 74, who died in a hospital operating room.
The gunman, captured late Thursday morning in Shelby, North Carolina, at a location about three-and-a-half-hours’ drive from the church, was described as a loner by police.
His motive for the alleged shooting is not known. But authorities say he was arrested and jailed for a drug charge in March 2014, and had been arrested for a trespassing charge in a separate incident.
He reportedly hails from Lexington, South Carolina, and was arrested without incident, fully “cooperative,” said Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen.
Roof’s uncle, Charles Cowles, described his nephew in Reuters as “quiet and soft-spoken.” A student who attended high school with Roof, named John Mullins, described him to the Daily Beast as “kind of wild” and as someone who “used drugs heavily a lot.”
Mullins elaborated: “It [was] obviously harder than marijuana. He was like a pill popper, from what I understood. Like Xanax and stuff like that.”
Mullins also said Roof was known for hurling racial epithets.
“I never heard him say anything, but just he had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs,” he said, the Daily Beast reported. “He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that. You don’t really think of it like that.”
Roof could face the death penalty, legal minds told Fox News. Police have not yet issued formal charges.
Several presidential hopefuls have weighed in on the shootings.
Sen. Ted Cruz said in a statement: “My thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims of last night’s shooting in Charleston, who were tragically taken from us as they gathered together in prayer inside their place of worship. While details are still emerging, I have faith in law enforcement that the perpetrator of this evil and senseless act will be brought to justice and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee wrote: “The Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. became a scene of unspeakable carnage because an evil person violated the sanctuary where earth and heaven meet and turned it into a place where earth and hell meet. No civilized person can react except with revulsion to such a senseless, cowardly, and despicable act. And for it to happen in one of America’s truly great and gentile cities adds to the horror. All Americans join in the condemnation of this act, but for Christians, such horror is especially painful because a holy place for peace and prayer has been infected and desecrated by demonic violence. The prayers that were interrupted by a mass murderer will be continued by a grieving nation.”
Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson weighed in via Facebook.
He wrote: “I worry about a new hate that is growing in our great nation. [Though] racial based hate is still very much alive, the new battle ground of evil [is] our intolerance of one another [because] many feel it is ok to hate someone who thinks differently than you do. … Just because someone is for Obamacare and another is against doesn’t change the fact we are all brothers and sisters. All Americans. As a brain surgeon I can assure you that all of our brains look the same, no matter what our skin color or party affiliation. … we must dedicate ourselves to not hating anyone based on their politics.”
And South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham called the incident “heartbreaking,” and said the nation should reach out with prayer.
“To the families of the victims, please know that you are being prayed for and loved by so many in the community and across the nation. I pray that God will provide you healing in the coming days. There are bad people in this world who are motivated by hate. Every decent person has been victimized by the hateful, callous disregard for human life shown by the individual who perpetrated these horrible acts. Our sense of security and well-being has been robbed and shaken,” he said in a written statement.
See WND’s extensive coverage of the Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre: