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From Dialogue to Action: Charting a Roadmap to Combat Gun Violence in Charleston

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

Charleston, SC - May 25, 2023 - The Tri-County Gun Violence Coordination Council (GVCC) held its fourth Gun Violence Forum on May 7th, 2023, at the College of Charleston– one day after the mass shooting at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas that left nine people dead and seven wounded.


The 4-part series facilitated by the GVCC aimed to find common ground across the political and ideological divide, inviting panelists on all sides of the gun issue to talk through the challenges we face locally, share their stories, and start a conversation around what we can do collaboratively to make all of our communities safer from gun violence. The forums were moderated by Raphael James from Live 5 News and Terry Base with WJNI 106.3FM, who skillfully navigated the discussions.


The final forum brought together a diverse group of stakeholders, including State Representative Wendell Guillard, former Representative Krystle Matthews, Dorchester County sheriff's office, and police chiefs from Summerville, North Charleston, and Charleston County. Several Charleston County School District board members were present as well as two full rows of young people. The event had representation from all age groups, races, and demographics; however, the absence of Mayor Tecklenburg*, Nancy Mace, Sandy Senn, Chip Campsen, and the entire City and County councils, as well as the rest of the Charleston delegation, was specifically highlighted and called out.


This summary gives an overview of the final meeting on 5/7/23, highlights solutions and ideas presented by speakers, identifies action items that came out of these conversations, and shouts out a few upcoming local events.



Recognizing the Complexity of Gun Violence


The forum commenced with a powerful opening, as the sound of gunfire filled the room. The audience responded with a mixture of surprise and nervous laughter. Pastor Thomas Dixon, known for his passionate advocacy against gun violence (and terrifyingly realistic gunshot impersonation), asked the audience, "How do you know we're safe in here? There were no metal detectors when we walked in. No security, no nothing.” The reality is, there is nowhere in America that is safe from guns anymore.


Before leading an opening prayer, dedicated to all of the Charleston legislators who were invited but did not come, Pastor Thomas Dixon asked attendees to raise their hands if they had lost someone to gun violence. The majority of those with their hands raised were African American. Like many in the audience, most of the people involved in the GVCC have also lost a loved one to gun violence; many have lost children. This is a uniting force among those dedicated to gun violence prevention work in Charleston County; they’re driven by a desire to protect other families from the pain they’ve felt.


"Gun violence is not a matter of politics, but of humanity," emphasized Pastor Dixon, who is also a member of Brady, the non-profit organization behind The Brady Law – a bipartisan legislation passed in 1993 that introduced a five-day waiting period for licensed dealers to sell or transfer handguns to unlicensed individuals.


The GVCC's forum series follows Brady's model, prioritizing action over partisan divides to uncover holistic solutions that address the complex issue of gun violence. In each forum, speakers recognized the impact of gun violence on all races and ethnicities, while acknowledging the particular toll on Black and Brown communities. The forums have examined the problem from all angles, emphasizing the need for education, litigation, and legislation in order to make our communities safer, not only from mass shootings, but also from the daily toll of gun homicide, domestic violence, suicide, unintentional shootings, and police violence. By acknowledging the many root causes of gun violence, the GVCC hopes to come up with solutions that address the complexity and interconnectedness of the problem.


Remembering the Victims

Butch Kennedy, GVCC Executive Director, and Founder of the Palmetto Hope Network introduced a video presentation honoring the 2022-2023 victims of gun violence across Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester counties. Mrs. Paulette Marie Vanderhorst wiped a tear from the face of her quadriplegic son, a gunshot survivor, as faces rotated across the screen, alongside the person’s name, death date, and location of death. It took nearly 20 minutes to get through the photos of the 74 victims from across the Tri-County area from January 2022 - April 12, 2023.


Addressing Trauma & Financial Burden


Transitioning from honoring the victims, the focus of the conversation shifted towards addressing the burdens of trauma and the financial costs experienced by individuals and communities affected by gun violence.


GVCC Board Member Dr. Ashley Hink is an Assistant Professor of Surgery at MUSC’s Department of Surgery, Division of Trauma, Burn & Surgical Critical Care, and the Medical Director for MUSC Turning the Tide Violence Intervention Program. Dr. Hink talked about the ripple effect of trauma and the importance of addressing secondary trauma for victims’ families of victims, witnesses to violence, as well as those providing support and care to victims. She highlighted the work of MUSC's Turning the Tide program providing ongoing support to victims and families affected by violence.


Dr. Hink also shed light on the staggering financial burden that gun violence places on individuals, communities, healthcare systems, law enforcement agencies, and society as a whole. Gun violence in South Carolina carries a substantial cost of approximately $43 billion, encompassing expenses such as medical treatment, law enforcement, and criminal justice efforts, lost productivity, psychological and social costs, as well as investments in prevention and intervention programs.


Identifying Root Causes & Community Risk Factors

In order to address violence comprehensively, Dr. Hink says we must treat it as a public health issue; “You really have to address all of the potential risks and root causes that exist at the level of the person, within their families, in their households, within their neighborhoods, in their community, within the systems and the policies [that surround them].”


Understanding where victims come from is as important as knowing where the crime happened. “Many of you probably know we don't get a lot of victims from Daniel Island. And we don't get a lot of victims from Mount Pleasant. When you map where our patients come from locally, they tend to cluster in the same neighborhoods and communities over and over again. And this isn't unique to Charleston, North Charleston, or these areas. This is happening across our country.” Studies consistently show that violence tends to concentrate in areas of disparity and disinvestment, often due to long-standing policies and practices.


The prevalence of firearms in these communities perpetuates a cycle of fear, as individuals feel compelled to carry guns for self-protection. This fear is further intensified by the deteriorating physical environment, marked by dilapidated buildings and dimly lit streets, which contributes to a pervasive sense of insecurity.


Identifying and addressing underlying issues such as poverty, educational disparities, poor housing conditions, community disinvestment, and limited access to essential resources like food, green spaces, and healthcare have been shown by studies to be extremely effective solutions in preventing violence.

Social Capital as the Antidote


Dr. Hink introduces the concept of social capital as a proactive approach to addressing the fear and other community risk factors that contribute to violence, emphasizing the importance of fostering trust, connectedness, and empowerment within communities as a means of prevention. “Social capital makes you feel that you belong and that what you do matters; that you have a voice.”

The first layer of social capital is trust. Improving trust is essential for enhancing safety and connectedness, as fear and distrust contribute to violence. Additionally, research has proven that addressing the built environment by revitalizing neglected areas, installing lights, creating green spaces, and improving the physical aspects of homes can effectively reduce gun violence and crime rates in neighborhoods.


Wrap-Around Services


Elmire Raven, the former Executive Director of My Sister's House, emphasized the need for better collaboration and the establishment of protocols to streamline coordination among the existing organizations that provide complementary support services in the area. Raven emphasized the need for grants and funding to sustain wrap-around services, highlighting the vital role of financial support in implementing and maintaining comprehensive support networks.


Within the ecosystem of wrap-around services, Raven spoke about the crucial role of violence intervention work in providing targeted support, crisis management, and real-time/on-the-ground interventions to individuals affected by or at risk of violence.


Violence Interruption & Empowering Youth


Violence intervention team members Wendell Manigault, Ronald "Stunna" Smith, and Keith Smalls received a standing ovation for their dedication and grassroots violence interruption work within their communities. Wendell Manigault Jr., a gunshot survivor-turned-advocate was awarded a plaque by Representative Guilliard to recognize his service to the State of South Carolina.


Smalls, a member of MUSC's Turning the Tide violence intervention team, and Smith, the founder and Executive Director of Positive Vibes Ronjanae Smith Inc., vulnerably shared their personal experiences of prison and losing loved ones to gun violence. These men, along with Manigault Jr. have turned their pain into service, fueling a steady-burning commitment to doing the grassroots work. Through their involvement in the community, and speaking at schools, they are actively recruiting kids to leave gangs, but they stressed the importance of providing alternative opportunities to at-risk youth through mentorship, training, jobs, and financial support for organizations facilitating these services. With schools breaking for the summer, it is crucial to offer positive activities and resources to keep students away from gangs.



Mentorship & Conflict Resolution


The event emphasized the vital role of youth as the first line of defense against gun violence in schools. Several speakers underscored the value of mentorship and conflict resolution in empowering youth, and fostering lasting connections, educating parents and teachers on behavioral health and mental health.


GVCC Board Member and Founder of Arm in Arm, Meghan Trezies, emphasized the importance of listening to children and providing them with the tools to recognize signs of struggle or risk. Trezies specifically mentioned Sandy Hook Promise’s no-cost program, “Say Something” program, which teaches middle and high school students how to recognize warning signs and provides them with an anonymous reporting system. CCSD has a similar initiative called "Speak Up" as well as conflict resolution programs and alternative approaches to detention that need more resources in order to effectively implement them in more schools.


Joy Brown, a representative from the West Ashley School Board, District 10, drew attention to the accessibility of firearms for children and the need to educate families on safe gun storage. Brown also emphasized that not all children with behavioral issues have underlying mental health problems. Parents and teachers need to have a baseline understanding of nervous system regulation and know how to distinguish between mental health issues and behavioral issues in order to better support children's well-being. She discussed the significance of Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS) and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) programs, which are already in place in CCSD schools. CCSD chair member, Pam McKinny, and the Director of school support services for CCSD, Dr. Shavana Cokley, were in the audience and reiterated the need for enhanced personnel support and financial resources to expand and sustain these initiatives across all CCSD schools.


Recognizing the importance of mentorship programs, Brown also emphasized the significant impact that shared cultural backgrounds between mentors and mentees can have on the effectiveness of these programs. Building on this topic, Rezsaun Lewis, the Executive Director of Lowcountry Youth Services, further emphasized the urgent need to address the mentoring gap, with about one-third of children lacking mentors. Lewis shared a powerful personal story of mentoring his own brother, highlighting the transformative impact of mentorship and underscoring the need for comprehensive support networks and financial resources to ensure that every child has access to positive role models and guidance throughout their development. Lewis showcased the success of the Lowcountry mentoring program, which has been embraced by 15 CCSD schools, with program graduates often returning as mentors themselves. Lewis also reiterated the importance of community support networks to bridge gaps between organizations and secure funding and grant-writing resources.


Increasing Public Awareness


Tisa Whack, founder of the non-profit, We Are Their Voices, and active member of the Charleston chapter of Moms Demand Action shared her personal story of losing her son to gun violence in 2015 and discussed the importance of responsible gun storage education through programs like BeSMART, and advocated for a local “Lock It Up" campaign, to reduce gun thefts from unlocked vehicles.


Summerville Police Chief Doug Wright says last year 396 guns were taken with proactive policing in the town. “In my 30 years, I’ve never seen people leave their vehicles unlocked with firearms inside so often,” Wright says. North Charleston Police Department Deputy Chief Ken Hagge said their patrol is seizing anywhere from 28 to 50 guns a month off the street.

Hagge also added that their evidence locker has about 7,500 guns in the department’s possession. “We have more guns being purchased by legal gun owners that sell them to gangs than we ever had before,” Hagge said. The other police chiefs also shared Hagge’s concerns about legal gun owners selling firearms to unauthorized individuals and also mentioned the presence of untraceable ghost guns which lack serial numbers and the alarming fact that 3D printing can be used to modify pistols into fully automatic weapons.


During this part of the discussion, several solutions were proposed in addition to implementing a public campaign to lock cars and reduce gun theft. These included the creation of accessible crime databases and the implementation of implicit bias training for law enforcement officers. Additional suggestions involved empowering police chiefs to address officers' racist beliefs and behavior, establishing a statewide database for fired officers, and reaffirming commitment to the annual Police Community Unity Day in Charleston. Furthermore, it was recommended to mandate comprehensive training for officers in responding to domestic violence calls and to conduct a thorough review of how law enforcement handles cold case homicides and non-fatal assaults while ensuring families receive timely updates on their cases.


Local Policy & Infrastructure


Former State Representative, Krystle Matthews emphasized the need to improve South Carolina's digital infrastructure for better communication and information sharing between local and national authorities to enhance background checks and flag ineligible firearm purchasers. Matthews advocated for local ordinances and bond referendums to secure funding for community-based organizations, mental health services, and educational programs addressing the root causes of gun violence. James Moore, a veteran gun owner, and GVCC panel member, echoed the call for integrated databases to strengthen digital infrastructure and supported requiring Federal Firearms License (FFL) transfers for person-to-person sales.


Matthews urged attendees to mobilize and advocate for these measures at the local level; “Visit city council and town council meetings, show up at your elected officials' offices, and ask your representatives to provide a list of available grants and who is applying for them.”



CALLS TO ACTION


In follow-up meetings after the 4-part Gun Violence Forum, the group has begun outlining the initial steps on a transformative roadmap to implement holistic solutions within the Charleston community. The plan aims to unify existing organizations that are working to prevent the social and economic conditions that breed violence. The proposed initiatives will focus on investing in community cleanups and green space projects, providing better care for victims, enhancing access to resources for at-risk youth, enacting local ordinances and campaigns to prevent violence, and investing in state-wide digital infrastructure improvements.


To achieve these goals, funding is crucial. Increased financial support is needed to invest in physical infrastructure, provide access to cognitive-behavioral therapy, and sustain community-based organizations. Adequate funding enables a comprehensive and sustained approach to address the root causes of violence and create lasting positive change. Politicians have the power to allocate resources and support policies that promote these efforts, making their involvement crucial in driving lasting transformation.


Now, more than ever, our community's involvement is paramount. We must hold our local officials accountable by demanding their participation in future GVCC events. We need our elected officials to help identify and allocate grant funding to support the grassroots organizations already at the forefront of proactive efforts against gun violence. Let us harness the power of collective action, inspire volunteers, and channel funding toward these vital initiatives. Together, we can forge a safer future, free from the devastating grip of gun violence, and foster a community of trust, compassion, resilience, and hope.


Immediate Initiatives:


1. Three Local PR Campaigns are in the works:

  • 'Lock It Up' PSA in collaboration with BeSmart, Moms Demand Action, and local police departments.

  • Documentary project with local community organizers doing the daily work of violence interruption.

  • “We Got Your Back” campaign: featuring CCSD’s "Speak Up" program and Conflict Resolution classes


2. The group will speak with local organizers about forming a 'Wrap Around Service Coalition' to integrate support networks for the many community organizations in the area. The coalition would allow members to share resources for funding, consolidate grant writing efforts, initiate community outreach and fundraising efforts, and engage local businesses. The group is looking for a physical space to house the coalition and serve as a Community Trust Center.


Example of the Wrap-Around Service Coalition:

UPCOMING EVENTS:


1. Saturday, June 3, 10:00 AM: The Charleston area Wear Orange event is happening at Awendaw Town Hall.


“Join us as we honor survivors of gun violence during National Gun Violence Awareness Day and Wear Orange Weekend. All are welcome to join for food, music, and community.”


Location:

Awendaw Town Hall

6971 DOAR Rd

Awendaw, SC 29429

FAMILY-FRIENDLY, ALL ARE WELCOME



2. August 26, 10:00 AM: Boyz to Men Conference will be held at West Ashley high school. “So often both men and boys have been left out of the conversation when it comes to ending violence against women. This conference serves to change that narrative and to Enlighten, Encourage and Empower young men and boys. Some of the topics covered will be healthy relationships, bullying, gun violence, understanding male masculinity, and the root cause of physical/sexual violence. Our mission is to give our youth solutions and alternatives to violence and teach them consent and respect for women."

Location:

West Ashley High School

4060 W. Wildcat BLVD

REGISTER HERE: August, 26th at 10 AM



About GVCC


The Tri-County Gun Violence Coordinating Council (GVCC) was founded by Marlvis “Butch” Kennedy. The GVCC’s mission is to address gun violence in the Tri-County area by facilitating coordination among stakeholders and formulating a comprehensive gun violence prevention strategy. The focus of the Tri-County Gun Violence Coordinating Council is to continuously review responses to gun violence. The Council works together to identify and implement improvements through policy development. This council brings law enforcement, the courts, advocates, and community partners to resolve issues specific to the needs of those affected by gun violence.


For more information, please visit www.palmettohopenetwork.org or contact Butch Kennedy at 843-324-7740 or butchkennedy1060@gmail.com We can also provide a list of community organizations and full speaker bios upon request.


*Article update 6/8/23: Mayor Tecklenburg reached out to the GVCC and apologized for missing the event due to a personal scheduling conflict. The Mayor has since been in conversation with GVCC founders and is in the process of identifying an office and co-working space for the group to use in its efforts to bring together the many local grassroots organizations that are working to address the issue of gun violence in the Lowcountry.


This article was written and published by Jessica Vernon, founder of Inspirada Creative

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