Guns rights advocates say Charleston pastor could have prevented killing

Gun Owners of America spokesman and NRA board member criticize pastor who was killed for voting against concealed carry

Guns rights advocates struck back at calls for gun control after Wednesday night’s deadly mass shooting at a historic black church in South Carolina, saying President Barack Obama’s plea for stricter gun laws “gets it wrong” and asserting that the pastor of the church, who was killed in the shooting, could have prevented the massacre if not for his anti-gun stance.

“One of the biggest problems at the South Carolina church is that the potential victims were disarmed by law,” Gun Owners of America spokesman Erich Pratt said in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera. “In the Palmetto State, a concealed carry permit holder can carry in places of worship with permission from a church official. Unfortunately, the pastor was an anti-gun activist. As a state senator, the Pastor had voted against concealed carry.”

The pastor, Clementa Pinckney, who became the state's youngest senator in 2001 at the age of 27, voted for reproductive rights and gun control laws, and he spent his last day campaigning with 2016 Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton in Charleston.  

The nation's leading gun rights lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), has not yet released a statement on the shooting, but one of its board members, Charles L. Cotton, weighed in on an online message board.

Pinckney “voted against concealed-carry,” Cotton said on a firearm issue discussion site that he moderates. “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

Pratt added that Obama “gets it wrong once again” in his response to the shooting. “The president wants to blame an inanimate object, the gun,” Pratt said. “But that just deflects blame away from the real culprit — gun control policies that leave people defenseless in the face of evil perpetrators who are never effectively prevented from acquiring weapons.”

South Carolina has some of the most relaxed laws on gun ownership in the nation. The state does not require background checks for private gun sales, and in 2014, the state legislature allowed holders of concealed carry permits to bring guns into places of worship with the permission of the religious leader.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called for stricter gun control laws in response to the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which killed several community leaders, including Pinckney, librarian Cynthia Hurd and high school track coach Sharonda Coleman-Singleton.

“I personally believe there are far too many guns out there. And access to guns — it’s far too easy,” Riley told The Washington Post.

President Obama echoed that sentiment.

“We don’t have all the facts, but 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,” Obama told the press on Thursday.

The suspect in the Charleston shooting, Dylann Roof, was pictured wearing the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) on his Facebook account. Roof's father had given him a .45-caliber pistol for his birthday, Roof's uncle Carson Cowles told Reuters. Authorities have yet to disclose details about the weapon used in the attack.

Months before his death, Pinckney delivered a sermon at a YWCA event in late April, titled “Requiem on Racism,” in which he said that love alone could end racism. “Irregardless of our faiths, our ethnicities, where we are from, together we come in love,” he said. “Together we come to bury racism, to bury bigotry, and to resurrect and revive love, compassion and tenderness.” 

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