Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine was speaking with a 7-year-old recently when the child said he knew how to get a gun.
Hearing a child talk about a gun as if it was an everyday bit of life put Richland County’s gun violence into perspective, said Devine, who is a candidate for mayor in this fall’s election.
The problem is growing, with a series of shootings in the last month — crimes that often involved teenagers or young adults as victims and shooters. Now, Richland County and Columbia police are joining local and state political leaders and a grassroots organization to reverse what was described as a lethargic community response so far to the deadly and persistent scourge.
“This is an emergency,” said state Rep. Jermaine Johnson, who represents parts of Lower Richland. ”We have to get this under control.”
Johnson, Devine, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook and mayoral candidate Sam Johnson stood with Bradley Perry at a Thursday new conference to call for community and political leaders to act to stop gun violence.
Perry, director of Building Better Communities, a group that works in primarily Black communities on a host of issues but particularly on preventing shootings, announced the group will start a program aimed at educating people on the gun violence problem, lobbying lawmakers to take action against such violence, treating gun violence as a public health issue and engaging communities, parents and faith leaders in solutions.
The efforts will culminate later in the year with what Perry called the Gun Violence Prevention Summit.
“We’ve dehumanize gun violence to the point where it’s an article today and it’s gone tomorrow,” Perry said. Fixing gun violence is “going to take all of us. Not just (Building Better Communities), not just law enforcement, not just our elected officials, but our communities.”
In an impassioned plea, Perry said preachers need to come out of the pulpit and into the streets to help prevent gun violence. He called for a cultural response and proposed creating a wall with the names of shooting victims to humanize gun violence. He proposed better civil engagement and education so people can know how to tell lawmakers they want solutions. He wants everyone from police to parents and politicians to think of guns not just as instruments of murder but also tools for suicide.
Thursday’s news conference also included Jack Oliver, swimming pool construction company owner as well as owner of a bar and restaurant on Broad River Road, the site of two shooting incidents on May 3 and 8, according to police.
Oliver donated $5,000 to Building Better Communities and said other businesses need to “help law enforcement in Columbia stop the needless gun violence.”
Lott said he’s going to continue to pound the drum of communities becoming more involved in solutions.
“There’s a lot of denial,” Lott said.
The Richland County Sheriff’s Department has investigated 11 shooting homicides this year. That’s one more than last year, Lott said. Columbia Police have dealt with six shooting deaths so far.
In March, an 18-year-old, with help from two other teens, kidnapped and shot to death 15-year-old Sanaa Amenhotep, according to police. In April and May, at least three teenagers have been shot dead in Columbia or Richland County, including two from a Monday night shooting. Tuesday evening, the Columbia Police Department was called in to another fatal shooting.
Then on Wednesday, Richland County deputies got called to a fight at Lower Richland High School, where a 17-year-old was arrested for having a gun in his bookbag, Lott said. Five Points was the scene of a daytime shooting on May 4. Also in May, a pair of retaliatory shootings between a 26-year-old and a teenager left 62-year-old Charlie Jackson Jr. dead even though he had nothing to do with the disputes that spurred the shootings.
Chief Skip Holbrook said Columbia is dealing with a “precipitous increase” in gun violence, including shootings that may not kill people but leave them injured.
The Columbia Police Department has some of the greatest investigators he’s worked with, Holbrook said. The department has the most modern and helpful investigative technology.
“Clearly that’s not enough,”he said. “We got to have help from the community.”
Holbrook and others declared that gun violence was a public health issue and should be treated as such.
Johnson, the mayoral candidate, said “what we’ve got to do in Columbia is build resources. We got to provide opportunities.” Young people need to know “pulling a trigger is never an option.”
In the near hour-long news conference, the coalition addressed various factors and solutions to gun violence. While Johnson, the state representative, said he doesn’t want gun violence politicized, he couldn’t ignore a bill set to become law that will allow people in South Carolina to openly carry guns in public.
The group all agreed that guns are seen too often as a solution to personal conflict, and that they are glorified and equated to power. Those are the primary reasons young people turn to using bullets.
“If we don’t get a handle on what we’re seeing now,” Jermaine Johnson said, “it’s going to get worse.”