ROCKINGHAM — Mental health and firearms laws were among the issues members of the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus raised during a Thursday press conference in response to a deadly church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.
“This is a sad day in our country and our world,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland. “Our hearts were broken to hear the tragic news from South Carolina about church members who gathered for prayers and Bible study last night.
“Many words have been used to describe this situation, but what comes to mind for me is unbelievable,” continued Pierce, chairman of the caucus and a Baptist minister. “There was one who came in and sat in the midst of them, heard the word of God, but there was still something troubling his mind.”
Nine people were killed after police say 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof opened fire inside the Emmanuel AME Church — after sitting inside the church for an hour. Eight were found dead at the scene and another died at the hospital.
Among the dead were S.C. state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and Cynthia Marie Graham-Hurd, sister of former N.C. senator Malcolm Graham. Pinckney was also the pastor of the church.
Roof was arrested Thursday morning in Shelby.
Federal officials are investigating the shooting as a hate crime.
GUN ACCESS QUESTIONED
“We are not here today to paint a picture about race,” Pierce went on, “but we are here today, some of us as clergy, to show our support for the victims, their families, the members of this great historical church in South Carolina and this nation.
“There are people that have motives that are not in keeping with the worship experience, the experience that people expect when they enter a sanctuary of worship,” he continued. “We want to send a charge to be vigilant and to be concerned as we go forward.”
Pierce was joined by other caucus members who talked about the issues surrounding the shooting.
“As policymakers and legislators, we must guard and govern carefully our processes for making guns accessible,” Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, said in an email after the conference. “The House just deliberated on an issue last night that affects the safety of all North Carolinians balanced with amendment rights.”
A bill to ease concealed carry restrictions and streamline pistol permit applications passed the N.C. House of Representatives 78-37 on Wednesday, with amendments striking down provisions that would have allowed lawmakers to carry their concealed weapons in the legislative complex and would have phased out the purchase permit, the Associated Press reports.
“It is my understanding from media reports that the shooter acquired the gun from his dad,” she said. “We must make sure that we are not creating a climate where these events can happen again.”
MENTAL HEALTH NEEDS
Smith-Ingram, who is a member of the Main Street Democrats legislative caucus led by Richmond County state Rep. Ken Goodman, also commented on the need for pastors and churches to reflect on security measures to protect parishioners.
“For example, are there trained security personnel at every service?” she asked. “Do you protect the tithes and offering once collected? Does security accompany the trustees to the safe during service? We want to make sure that we take extra precautions to prevent this from happening anywhere else.”
Sen. Floyd B. McKissick Jr., D-Durham, said legislators need to “think carefully off all the policies, all the legislation, all the things that we do as legislators that create an environment that makes it more conducive to these random acts of violence occurring increasingly today.”
Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, said the tragic event helps legislators to think about resources available for mental health issues in the community.
“How do we better address the needs of people?” she asked. “This obviously may have been racial in his mind, but there was some mental illness or something else going on, as well.”
‘WE HAVE FAILED HIM’
While legislators were reluctant to bring race into the conversation, one local pastor says it can’t be ignored.
“There are no words for the heinous crime that has entered the sacred space of the church, sat down right next to the object of that hate, where people are praying and praising, with no idea that such hate has joined their circle,” the Rev. Dian Griffin Jackson said in a text message Thursday afternoon. “These people welcomed this young man in their midst, embraced him in their hearts, and were rewarded with death and devastation.”
Jackson said she was in Greensboro for a celebration of the 50th year of the United Church of Christ, where one of the primary themes is the evil of racism and hate, a subject she has been asked to preach on.
“When will we realize that race is only a human construct of convenience, that though there are many tribes, all people are one and we do not need to fear one another?” she asked. “I am sad for Mr. Roof. We have failed him — as parents, as a nation, as the church, as human beings. Lives are lost because of that.”
Using popular hashtag phrases, Griffin continued: “#Blacklivesmatter…His life matters also. #Alllivesmatter to God.
“We can no longer ignore racism in this country,” she said. “It is alive and booming.”
A HATEFUL MESSAGE
Griffin’s statement was made evident by a post on the Facebook group “whitecloud23/16,” where a Thursday afternoon post glorifies Roof as a “hero.”
The end of the post, made following Roof’s arrest, reads: “…its sad to take a real worthy brother off the street but he heard his calling and he answers it bravely….whether he was one of us or not he had the right idea.another picture on the wall to raise our glass to.I salute you my unknown friend…if you get taken from us or not ur a hero with so many others.so proud to have u on our side. Hold your head high.u r the chosen and u will dine in the feast room in Valhalla with the Gods.”
The open group has 42 members, including four listed as being from Rockingham. However, none of those four “liked” or commented on the post.
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-817-2675 and follow him on Twitter @William_r_Toler.