By Andrew Moore and John Del Bianco
Gerald and Faye Stoudemire opened Little Mountain Gun and Supply near Columbia in 1987. In the nearly three decades since, the couple has listened to dozens of presidential candidates debate many issues. But one issue has always remained on their radar – gun control.
This year may be more intense. Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are campaigning against the backdrop of President Obama’s call for greater restrictions on guns, including expansion of background checks, and the tragic slayings in a Charleston church allegedly carried out by a young man who should not have been able to purchase a gun.
“I stay informed on the gun laws, pro or con, because of the threat we have gotten from the anti-gun establishment in the White House,” Stoudemire said. “I just feel there’s more talk about gun control in this year’s primary.”
Republican candidates have reached out to gun owners, some challenging President Obama’s proposal for more gun control. Front-runner and real estate tycoon Donald Trump recently said there is “an assault on the Second Amendment.”
However, Democratic candidates claim support for the expansion of background checks. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, leading in the state’s Democratic primary, released a gun control ad featuring Charleston’s Rev. Anthony Thompson, husband of one of the Charleston shooting victims.
In the ad, Thompson draws on Clinton’s promise of an expanded background check system, saying she can make sure “guns don’t get into the wrong hands.”
The ad hit close to home as the “wrong hands” being referred to are those of alleged shooter Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old who confessed to shooting nine churchgoers at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last summer. Roof, who had been arrested for a drug charge, should not have been able to purchase the Glock handgun.
Roof had been arrested by the Columbia Police Department months before acquiring the handgun and was detained at the Lexington County Detention Center. But a county clerk mistakenly listed the Lexington Sheriff’s Department as the arresting agency. A county corrections officer changed the records two days later, but the change did not show on the FBI’s system, causing confusion that allowed the three-day mandatory waiting period for gun purchases to expire without flagging Roof’s arrest.
The tragic shooting re-ignited a local and national discussion about background checks. The issue had quieted down since the Senate in 2013 refused to act on Obama’s proposed legislation requiring background checks on all private sales or transfers.
In January, President Obama announced executive actions, including hiring 230 additional FBI members to perform more effective background checks, to reduce gun violence.
Between 2001 and 2010, 5,991 people were killed by guns, according to the Center for American Progress. South Carolina also ranks 11th in the United States for the highest gun death rate, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. And the number of people shooting at cops increased almost 45 percent, jumping from 18 instances in 2014 to 26 instances in 2015, according to SLED data.
Democratic lawmakers in South Carolina’s General Assembly have introduced gun control legislation this year that includes a ban on assault weapons and the registration of firearms. In Washington, Rep. James Clyburn, D-SC, introduced legislation to eliminate the so-called “Charleston loophole” illuminated by Roof’s illegal gun purchase. The bill looks to “guarantee that no gun is sold by a licensed dealer until a background check is completed.”
The number of background checks in the Palmetto state is already increasing. There were 327,000 in 2015, the second most ever in the state. The highest number of background checks occurred in 2012, the year of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Connecticut.
South Carolina gun businesses have mixed feelings about background checks.
Stoudemire, also the president of the National Rifle Association’s Gun Owners of South Carolina, said expanding the background check system is a mistake because people won’t be able to hand guns down to family members unregulated.
Wayne Batson, owner of Sharpshooters Gun Club and Indoor Range in Greenville, said the three-day waiting period is “too short because of the amount of labor force required to a background check.” Batson said it should be extended to seven days.
According to a recent poll, 92 percent of Americans support background checks on all buyers. Also, 80 percent of South Carolinians support requiring gun buyers to wait until a background check is completed before taking possession of the firearm, according to a Winthrop University poll released in October.
Some gun owners are conflicted.
Roe Young, a Columbia resident, said it’s a complicated issue but government should focus on education and mental health. And while he felt background checks are needed, he said “additional background checks aren’t going to do much.”
Daniel Lee, a Greenville resident, said he supports the current background check system because three days “gives the FBI enough time to run the check and stop the person from buying the gun illegally.” It also allows the person “time to consider their actions” before committing a gun crime.
Gun owners are among the most circumspect in how they will cast votes in South Carolina’s primaries. None interviewed were willing to share who they would vote for.
Donald Trump is still the GOP front-runner in South Carolina with 42 percent, according to the most recent CBS News/YouGov poll. Cruz placed second with 20 percent. On the Democratic side, Clinton leads with 59 percent, just ousting Sanders with 40 percent.
Stoudemire said he believes Trump is leading the polls because he is “saying what people want to hear” and because “others are trying to be too polite.”
South Carolina’s Republican primary will be held Saturday, Feb. 20 and the Democratic primary will be held Saturday, Feb. 27. Find your polling place here.