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President Biden today signed a major bipartisan gun safety measure that is soothing the soul of Charleston, which is still healing seven years after nine people died in a horrific shooting at Emanuel AME Church. It was a hate crime that left the nation reeling.

The Rev. Kylon Middleton, a member of county council who was a close friend of one of those murdered, said many in Charleston were exhaling in thanksgiving for the bill signed into law by Biden. It is considered the most significant gun safety law in the three decades since he negotiated a 10-year assault weapons ban in 1994 as a U.S. senator.

“This monumental bill becomes a balm to the wounded souls left in the wake (of the) massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church,” said Middleton. “This new legislation would help save lives and honors the lives of the nine who were lost on June 17, 2015 in a Bible study. 

“This is God’s ‘Amazing Grace’ in action,” said Middleton, referencing the hymn sung by former President Barack Obama during a 2015 funeral seen around the world after the Charleston shooting.

Charleston resident Polly Sheppard survived the June 2015 massacre at the historic AME church. Dylann Roof, the man convicted of killing Middleton’s friend, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and eight others, has been sentenced to death. When Roof saw Sheppard was still alive on that evening seven years ago, he told her he’d spare her life so she could tell the story of what he had done.

“It’s a start”

On Monday in an interview, Sheppard said the new gun law was a start and “will work, but I don’t think it will go far enough. The young man who killed those seven people in (Highland Park, Ill.) was mentally ill. But mental illness has been here all the time. Now we have these (assault) weapons on the streets,” adding she thought they should be banned.

Charlotte resident Sharon Risher, who grew up in Charleston’s East Side, was at today’s bill-signing ceremony in Washington, D.C. She lost her mother, Ethel Lance, and cousins, Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders, in the Emanuel AME violence.

As she discussed being proud to represent those killed in Charleston, she briefly broke down, saying, “I want my mama and the other eight people who have died.” Then, gathering strength, she resolved to do everything she could to make sure they didn’t die in vain.

“Their lives were meaningful and they have left family members who will grieve for the rest of their lives,” Risher said. Earlier in the telephone interview, she added, “I pray it doesn’t take another 30 years for important common-sense gun laws to be passed.”  Her new target: Closing the so-called Charleston loophole. Doing so would expand the time officials have to do background checks of people who want guns.

“Real progress”

In remarks in Washington that were interrupted by a man whose son was killed in a Florida mass shooting, Biden discussed how the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act would pay for more crisis intervention. The new law also mandates due process procedures in states that have so-called “red flag” laws, which allow officials to get guns out of the hands of people who officials believe should not have them.

“This legislation is real progress but more has to be done,” the president said. “The provision of this new legislation is going to save lives and it’s proof that today’s politics we can come together on a bipartisan basis and get important things done. Even on an issue as tough as guns.”

He also again called for assault weapons to be banned and for lawmakers to pass safe storage laws that require personal liability if people don’t lock up guns.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun violence prevention organization, said the new legislation would make communities safer from gun violence.

“This law should be a signal to every leader we entrust with the safety of our loved ones: The time has come to reach across the aisle and pass common-sense laws to keep guns out of dangerous hands,” said John Feinblatt, president of the group.

Dr. Annie Andrews is a Mount Pleasant pediatrician who joined an affiliated group, Moms Demand Action, after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Now, she’s the Democratic nominee for U.S. Congress in the First Congressional District, which includes Charleston.

“Gun violence is a public health crisis and is the leading cause of death among children in America,” she told the City Paper. “As a pediatrician, mom and gun violence prevention researcher, this fight is personal, and I will continue to work tirelessly for the passage of common sense gun safety laws supported by the vast majority of Americans.”

UPDATED: Andrews’ opponent, incumbent GOP freshman Rep. Nancy Mace, did not respond to a request for a new comment on the bill-signing. Mace voted against the bipartisan bill.  

Staffers Andy Brack and Herb Frazier contributed to this story.

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