[image-1]Showtime’s new documentary series Active Shooter: America Under Fire begins with a familiar refrain.
Quickly flashing through newsreel footage from the past, we see scenes of chaos and carnage on American streets. The show’s opening credits span decades — grainy videotape transitions into high definition as the faces of the newscasters change and their wardrobe becomes more contemporary. Throughout it all, their message remains the same — a weary journalist behind a news desk names the newest city affected by large-scale gun violence. Then they declare that most recent attack to be the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. But the death tolls continue to rise.
With each episode focusing on a specific mass shooting, the series premiered last Friday with a look at the 2012 attack on an Aurora movie theater that killed 12 and injured 70. The series wouldn’t even reach its second episode before another mass shooting proved to be the deadliest in the recent history of the country.
On Oct. 1, just two days after Active Shooter premiered, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas. The shooter, identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, was found dead in the 32-floor hotel room where police say he shot down at the crowd, killing at least 59 people and injuring more than 500. An arsenal of high-power automatic weapons was found in Paddock’s room, along with hundreds of rounds of ammunition. With Paddock dead, no explanation has been given for the attack. Investigators continue to search for a reason as to why an avid gambler residing in a retirement community would become one of the deadliest domestic terrorists in the nation’s recent history.
While the scale of the Las Vegas shooting is shocking, it is by no means unthinkable. Nonprofit Gun Violence Archive counts the attack as the 273rd mass shooting this year in America where four or more people where killed or wounded. According to Business Insider, a federal designation of a mass shootings sets the threshhold at three deaths during a single attack. By that standard, Las Vegas is the 38th mass shooting in America this year. And as many cities across America, Charleston has not been untouched by this brand of violence.
On Oct. 13, Active Shooter will air the series’ episode examining the events surrounding the 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church that left nine black parishioners dead following an attack by Dylann Roof, an avowed white nationalist bent on igniting a race war.
The episode begins with Rev. Anthony Thompson recounting the story of how he met his wife, the late Myra Thompson, who was killed in the attack. It’s the same story he described in detail during Roof’s federal trial that resulted in the gunman becoming the first person in the U.S. to receive the death penalty for hate crime charges. Sitting alone at a table in his home, Thompson recalls the life that he and Myra shared together and the night of the attack. He still cries, he says, and he still looks for his wife to be there every morning.
A title card reading “Wednesday, June 17, 2015” flashes across the screen, a date ingrained in the minds of anyone who has called Charleston home over the past years. Surveillance footage from that night shows members of Emanuel AME enter and exit the historic church. They are followed soon after by Roof.
Following a pained 911 call from inside the church, we then hear from former officer Andrew Delaney with the Charleston Police Department. Delaney was one of the first responders to arrive at the scene. He recalls a quiet Wednesday night in Charleston before the call came in from Mother Emanuel. Delaney remembers entering the church and finding the bodies of the victims huddled under tables in the church’s fellowship hall. Unaware if the shooter was still on the scene, Delaney says he realized he might die that evening as he moved deeper into the building.
On the floor, covered in bullet casings and blood, Delaney found Tywanza Sanders, Roof’s youngest victim barely holding on to life. The officer stepped away from Sanders as he continued to check the building. Sanders would later succumb to his numerous gunshot wounds.
Almost 20 minutes pass in the episode before the words “hate crime” are first mentioned. Following Roof’s path from the scene of the shooting to Shelby, N.C., where he was apprehended by police, the show details how information regarding the attack began to materialize over one of the longest nights in Charleston’s history.
Rev. Joseph A. Darby, vice president of the Charleston NAACP, recounts his reaction as he learned the story behind Roof’s motivations for the attack. Roof had indoctrinated himself in the lore of white supremacy online and was a frequent visitor to historical sites around the Lowcountry. There, Roof would revel in the history of slavery.
Darby says he was not surprised to learn that Roof was a “disturbed” young white man. He says Roof looked online to find a salve for his own feelings on inadequacy, spending his time in chat groups filled with white supremacists, which Darby refers to as the modern equivalent of a Klan rally.
The episode spends little time focusing on how Roof was able to obtain the murder weapon. A previous drug charge should have prohibited Roof from purchasing the Glock pistol that he used to kill those nine men and women, but a federal background check was not completed in time and after three days, Roof was allowed to walk out of the gunshop with the weapon in hand. It would be two weeks after the shooting that the gun dealer would finally receive notice that Roof had failed the background check.
[image-2]Along with Rev. Thompson, Sharon Risher also provides personal perspective on how the families of the victims were affected by the shooting. Risher lost her mother, Ethel Lance, in the attack. Both Thompson and Risher have become vocal proponents for national gun reform in the wake of the shooting at Mother Emanuel.
Rather than focus on gun reform in the episode, Active Shooter spends the later half of the episode examining the forgiveness narrative that developed from Roof’s bond hearing. In their first opportunity to address the gunman, Rev. Thompson and Risher’s sister Nadine Collier were among the family members who offered their forgiveness to Roof during his bond hearing, an act that Risher questions.
“The world latched on to the forgiveness thing because the real thing was too hard to take in, to understand, everything that had happened, the hate, wanting to start a race war. If that was going to be what they needed for Charleston not to be a Ferguson, then that’s what they were gonna go with. I did not agree,” she says in the episode.
Looking back on the shooting at Emanuel AME more than two years ago, Active Shooter provides an intimate look at the scene inside the church and the personal toll that the killings took on the first responders and families of the victims. While the role that the so-called “Charleston loophole” that allowed Roof to purchase a firearm almost comes across as a passing mention, the producers give adequate weight to the bigoted motivations behind the shooting and show that more than just a simple forgiveness is needed to address racism in Charleston and South Carolina as a whole.
In order of episodes, Active Shooter moves from the tragic events in Aurora, San Bernardino, Charleston, the D.C. Navy Yard, Santa Monica, Oak Creek, Orlando, and Columbine. Although each of these attacks is given its own episode, it’s difficult to think of these shootings in a vacuum. As we have seen in Las Vegas, Americans are rewriting the book on mass shootings every day and the body counts continue to rise. Judging from the Charleston episode, Active Shooter is an important series that shines a light on the personal effect that these attacks have on real people. Perhaps the most disturbing thing is that the series has no lack of source material.