Relatives of the victims of a mass shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, joined House Democrats and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to ask Congress for a vote on legislation that requires background checks for firearm purchases at gun shows and in online transactions. The Charleston relatives were flanked by other gun violence victims who declared “I am Charleston,” in honor of the nine black worshipers who died in a hate-fueled massacre last month.
“Three weeks ago, our nation was rocked to the core by the murders [in Charleston],” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, a pro-gun-control organization named in remembrance of the 1981 attempted assassination of Republican President Ronald Reagan that left presidential assistant James Brady permanently disabled. “But we’re not here today because of one single incident," Gross added. "Every day, 89 lives are lost to gun violence in the U.S. That means that, since Charleston [less than a month ago], 1,800 people have died.”
As the group of advocates and victims’ relatives asked for a vote on the legislation, they did so knowing that others have been unsuccessful in recent years in lobbying Democrat- and Republican-controlled Congresses for stricter gun control measures. President Barack Obama recently lamented his own failure to pass expanded background check legislation in recent years following the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary that ended the lives of 20 children; the Tucson, Arizona, shooting that severely injured former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords; and the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting that left 12 people dead. Relatives of Charleston shooting victims said their family members, like the other mass shooting victims, deserve a vote in Congress.
“There is so much that Congress can do to keep guns out of the wrong hands,” said Andre Duncan, the nephew of Charleston victim Myra Thompson. "I will not rest until our legislators do what’s right. This will save lives, period. I am Charleston and I demand a vote.”
Louise Brown, 78, is a former member of Emanuel AME Church and knew each of the victims killed on June 17. Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white American who told authorities he targeted the historically black congregation to start a race war, is part of a generation that shouldn’t have to live with endless gun violence, Brown said. “I refuse to give up for the sake of generations to come, who will inherit the world that we leave behind,” she said. “Let us save lives -- we’ve lost so many lives to guns.”
Charleston native Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who questioned why gun control, instead of the Confederate flag, hadn’t emerged as the most pressing issue from the tragedy. “For some reason, the focus has been on the symbol of the Confederate battle flag,” said Clyburn, the assistant House Democratic caucus leader. “But the fact still remains that, though [Roof] worshiped the symbol, he carried out the act with a gun.”
Clyburn acknowledged that there was no way to know if an expanded background system would have stopped Roof from purchasing the gun he used in Charleston. “We know from our experience that background checks are effective," he said. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s all we’re asking for from Congress.”
In the current Congress, HR 1217 calls for a “universal” background check system for gun purchases. But Republican leadership has blocked the measure in committee. Federal law already requires background checks for licensed gun retailers, but it doesn’t cover guns sold at gun shows and by online vendors.
Mike Thompson, a Democratic congressman from California’s fifth district and a lead sponsor of the House legislation, said he had held too many press conferences like the one on Wednesday.
“I’m looking forward to the day that [I] will go down to the White House for a bill signing,” Thompson said. “[The victims] deserve a vote.”