Gun Violence | This Week in South Carolina

SLED Chief Mark Keel joins Gavin Jackson to discuss the rise in gun violence and what can be done to protect the community. Clemson professor Dr. Robin Kowalski talks about the emotional toll of gun violence.

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Gavin Jackson: Welcome to This Week in South Carolina. I'm Gavin Jackson. Mass shootings continue to happen across the country. And just last week it hit home when five people were shot during spring break at the Isle of Palms. We talked with Clemson professor Dr. Robin Kowalski about the psychological effects of these shootings. But first, Governor Henry McMaster along with SLED Chief Mark Keel, called on the legislature to strengthen gun laws. And Chief Keel joins me now to discuss how to keep our communities safe. Chief, thanks for joining us.

SLED Chief Mark Keel: Happy to be here.

Gavin Jackson: So this week you joined the governor and the Isle of Palms Police Chief Kevin Cornett, in calling for tougher gun laws in the state following that mass shooting at IOP over the weekend on April 7. What measures do you want to see the legislature pass with less than a month left in session?

SLED Chief Mark Keel: Simply put, we need a true felon in possession law in South Carolina. It's something that we've been working on for a number of years. Law enforcement has been talking to the General Assembly about it and that's simply what we need.  We know that here in our country, and here in South Carolina is no different, that a small number of people commit most of our crime. And we see that in our numbers this past in 2021. If you look at 2021,  we had 566 murders in South Carolina in 2021, the largest number we've ever recorded. 322 of those murders were committed by individuals less than 25, and 59 by people under the age of 18. We've seen a 52.2% increase in murders over the last 10 years. You look at weapons law violations, again, we see the same thing. We see a 4.1% increase in weapons law violations in 2021. 80.8% increase in weapons law violations over the last 10 years. 91% of those violations involve weapons, 76% hand guns.  If you look at the total number of weapons law violations in 2021, 9,728, and 6,500 of those weapons law violations were committed by individuals under the age of 25. So again, two thirds any individuals. We need, again, a true felon in possession law, so that we can hold those prolific offenders accountable here in South Carolina.

Gavin Jackson: Can you elaborate on what a felon possession law is? Is that for all felons?

SLED Chief Mark Keel: It's for all felons. So, what we would like to see in South Carolina is we would like to see our law mirror the federal statute.  We have, in South Carolina, an offender who has to be convicted of a violent crime conviction,  before he is considered to be a felon. And we have crimes such as shooting into a dwelling or shooting into an automobile. That is not considered a violent crime under our current statute. And so what we need, again, is that law that mirrors the federal statute  that really holds those individuals accountable. We take trafficking in drugs. Trafficking in drugs is a prohibitor here in South Carolina. But we know that many times those trafficking statutes end up getting played down. And if they're not convicted of a trafficking statute, when it comes to drugs, and we see so many gun violations connected to drugs in our state, then again, if they're not convicted of trafficking, they're not considered a felon, And they're not prohibited from possessing a firearm.

Gavin Jackson: So that was one law you want to see strengthened. What about, you know, illegal gun possession? A lot of these folks, I mean, we're talking about people, I think, looking even back to the Columbia Mall shooting last year, which is about a year to the date of this other mass shooting we just saw in IOP that a lot of people have illegal guns, but they can keep getting these illegal guns and keep getting a slap on the wrist essentially. What more needs to be done to stop that?

SLED Chief Mark Keel: Well, I mean, we see a lot of stolen handguns in people's possession. That came up in the press conference with the governor the other day, and people say, "Well, you know, where do they get them from?" Well, unfortunately, most of them come out of car break ins. We see that over and over again. In communities where people live with firearms, they don't store them safely. They leave them into vehicles, sometimes they leave their vehicles unlocked. We see on cameras in neighborhoods sometimes where these criminals will go. They're not even breaking into cars. They're just walking down the street checking the door handles. If a door is unlocked, they'll get in the car and see what they can find. And we see so many of these guns that are, again, being stolen out of vehicles and people are not safely storing their hand guns.

Gavin Jackson: So do you want to see tougher possession illegal possession laws too on top of the felon?

SLED Chief Mark Keel: Well, I mean, I think the, again, the laws that we have on the books with regards to firearms, on the federal side, we just need to make sure we're enforcing them. And again, what we would like to see here in South Carolina and what is in the House bill. What is in the House bill, the Constitutional Care bill, right now, is a bill that anyone who is convicted of a crime that carries a penalty in excess of one year is a felon, and they would be prohibited from carrying a firearm.

Gavin Jackson: Are you worried, when we talk about, you know, cracking down on crime again, making it, you know, kind of going back to the 90s, where everyone said, "We crack too hard down on crime," and now we had this backlash. Are you worried that that's kind of swinging back around here? Or do you think that's something that needs to happen? Because, again, you're talking about 566 murders, the highest since the 90s.

SLED Chief Mark Keel: Yeah, I think we need to get back to where we were at in the 90s, quite frankly.  I see it today, you know, during the 90s, we were building more prisons, okay.  The thing that I think is a cornerstone to, to South Carolina, and whether we're recruiting industry, or we're trying to get people to move to South Carolina, tourism industry and everything else, is the fact that we need to have a state where people feel free to come and feel safe when they're here.  And I think that when I look at the number of people that were in jail,  that were in jail 15 years ago, and I look at the number of people that are in jail today, and I've said it, you know, we had about 25,000 in jail at one time. We've got about 15,000 in jail today in our state prisons. And is there a correlation between that and the amount of crime we're seeing right now? We have to hold people accountable. If people can continue to commit crimes, and there's no deterrent effect, because they're not going to jail, they don't have that, that hanging over their head. They're gonna keep committing crimes. And that's what bothers me.

Gavin Jackson: And Chief, I want to talk to you a little bit more about some additional legislation in a minute, but you were talking about those numbers, those crime stats, and we're talking about the murders, again, 566 in 2021. What do you see driving all that? You know, we're also looking at  decrease, there's increases in sexual battery cases, decreases in robberies and aggravated assaults. But overall, what do you see driving these murder increases?

SLED Chief Mark Keel: I don't know. We've seen that increase over six years. We've continued to see an increase in murders over six years, on weapons law violations. Eight straight years in a row, we've seen the increase in weapons law violations. We obviously have an abundant number of firearms that are out there today. You know, when I was in high school, if somebody had a disagreement, you know, you come away with a bloody lip or bloody nose. And today, we got 12 year olds shooting 12 year olds, we got 15 year olds shooting 15 year olds.  I wish I had the answer to why that is, you know,  but I just know that we continue to see those increases. And we have to have laws on the books, again, that allow us to deal with those prolific offenders, those repeat violent offenders, and especially with gun crime.

Gavin Jackson: And when you talk about repeat offenders, we've been seeing obviously also that big push for bond reform. We're talking to the governor about that as well this week. You know, we look back at that Columbiana Mall shooting. All three of those shooters were arrested and jailed on attempted murder charges, they didn't get bond.  But when we look at the IOP shooting, one of the suspects, who's an 18 year old, was charged with unlawful carrying of a weapon, and he posted bond for $25,000. What happens if he commits another crime while out on bond right now?

SLED Chief Mark Keel: Hopefully, we'll lock him up and he'll go back before a judge that won't set a bond next time. I mean, our bond system is broken. And, you know, when I look at, when I hear prosecutors say that they've got 162 pending murder cases, and 80% of those individuals are out on bond, that bothered me. I don't understand that. And I can tell you that our Fugitive team here at SLED, we are continually re arresting individuals who are out on bond for violent crimes. And so I hope, again, the legislature,  I know the governor's very much in support of a bond reform, and the legislature is too, and I hope that they will pass legislation this year that will address that issue and try to keep these repeat violent offenders in jail.

Gavin Jackson: What about the constitutionality of bond reform? I mean, if folks aren't already convicted of a crime, can they be charged with another one at the same time, when it comes to that bond?

SLED Chief Mark Keel: Well, it's my understanding that in South Carolina, again, if it's a violent crime, they can get a no bond. And I think that, I know that during COVID,  you know, the courts were not wanting to necessarily put more people in jail because of what we were all dealing with in that environment, but um, but we've got to hold repeat violent offenders accountable. And the only way we can do it is, of course, we all have to work together as a partnership, the criminal justice system does not work without law enforcement, the courts, Probation, Parole and Pardon, Department of Social Services, Mental Health. We've got a huge mental health issue in our country, as well. And here in South Carolina, and we all have to partner together and work together as seamless as we can to try and hold these individuals accountable.

Gavin Jackson: You feel like we are doing that right now and working all together? =

SLED Chief Mark Keel: I hope we're headed in that direction. I do believe that we're headed in that direction. And I think it's based upon the fact that, again, we continue to see these numbers increase. And I think that everybody understands that there's no one part of the system that can do it. We all have to work together. And I'm hoping that's the direction we're moving.

Gavin Jackson: And I'm assuming you're pretty hopeful too since we saw the Senate pass that Bond Reform bill back to the house, which was approved prior in the session, so it'll make it to the Governor's desk.

SLED Chief Mark Keel: I am, and I have no doubt that  that it will, hopefully, it will get passed, hopefully. Again, the House and Senate will come together. I guess they'll probably have a conference committee maybe on that Bond bill and come up with a Bond bill this year and get that passed and get it to the Governor's desk for signature.

Gavin Jackson: Chief, we have less than five minutes left. I want to ask you about this Constitutional Carry bill. That passed the House too, it's in the Senate now. Do you think that's a good bill? Do you have any concerns about people carrying without training?

SLED Chief Mark Keel: I have, I have great concerns about it.  I have never supported that. But at the same time, I will tell you this year, we've law enforcement, a lot of law enforcement associations have been sort of neutral on it. And we've been neutral neutral on it, because we are desperate to get a true felony possession bill And that is in the House bill. And we have to you know, when we look at open carry, with CWP last year, when it passed. Lot of folks were concerned obviously, we would see people open carrying everywhere. I've not seen that I travel all over the state all the time. And I'll be quite frank, I've not seen one single person carrying open carry.

Gavin Jackson: Such as a handgun or a long gun?

SLED Chief Mark Keel: Well, long gun was not a long gun was not prohibited already. So I've just not seen it. I know talking to some of my local sheriffs, And especially in rural areas, I've seen more of it than I have. But again, I am concerned about it. I am concerned about people not having training, I'm concerned about people not having training with regards to how to store a weapons safely, just like I was talking about leaving it in automobiles. And I'm also concerned about an individual carrying openly that legally does not know when they can use that weapon. And, And seeing again, a law abiding citizen, using at the wrong time who do not know what the law is And could end up being held accountable for crime.

Gavin Jackson: So a lot of concerns just to get that felony possession law passed, which probably shouldn't have the books years ago, I remember hearing hearings about that back in the state house two years ago.

SLED Chief Mark Keel: We've talked about it for a number of years, law enforcement has talked about it for a number of years. And again, we hope that we hope that this will get us across the finish line this year.

Gavin Jackson: Chief another big issue we see you know, there's always that talk about defunding police, etc. Have you seen any frontline staffing level issues across the state in terms of, you know, backlash to policing right now, or what's it look like in South Carolina?

SLED Chief Mark Keel: We have a significant vacancy rate in South Carolina. The Sheriffs Association has done two studies they've done in November of 2021 And November 2022. In November of 2022, the latest study they did was about 300 law enforcement or 290 - 300 law enforcement agencies in South Carolina. Only 114 agencies responded to that survey. But it showed we had 4,114 vacancies. A large number of those of vacancies were at SCDC And Department of Juvenile Justice. But it showed it was about 1700 vacancies in first responder type law enforcement, your city And county law enforcement were when you have your house broken into that's who you're calling. And so it is a significant problem not just in South Carolina, but across the country. We continue to see that. And it concerns me very much having been in this profession 45 plus years now. It concerns me that we don't see young people wanting to get into this profession. And so I don't know where we're going with that.

Gavin Jackson: Got about 30 seconds want to ask you just about fentanyl And the increasing overdose deaths that we've been seeing. According to DEHEC, from 2020 - 2021 deaths involving fentanyl increased more than 35% in South Carolina to 1,494 for deaths. What's being done to crack down on this? What more do you guys need? 

SLED Chief Mark Keel: We need a trafficking in fentanyl bill which again, we've got we've got two bills that have been introduced one by the house one by the Senate drug induced death by the Senate. It's has been passed And gone to the house And then trafficking in fentanyl was passed by the House going to the Senate. We hope both of bills pass this year. And again I have said And it's not a political statement, but this administration that we have in Washington DC has to get their head out of the sand, And they have to do something about our border. As long as our border stays open. We're gonna continue to see deaths because of fentanyl. It is pouring across our border at unprecedented levels. And it's gonna kill a whole generation of young people in our country. If something not done about it.

Gavin Jackson: A lot going on in the country in our state. That's chief Mark Keel of SLED. Thank you so much, sir. Appreciate it.

SLED Chief Mark Keel: Thank you. 

Gavin Jackson: Dr. Robin Kowalski is a psychology professor at Clemson University. And she joins us now to discuss school And mass shootings at her research, as well as mental health. Dr. Kowalski, thanks for joining us again. 

Dr. Robin Kowalski: Thanks so much for having me. 

Gavin Jackson: So Dr. Kowalski, we've seen horrific mass shootings remain in the news, including school shootings, there was that horrific shooting at a school in Nashville last month that left three adults And three students dead. At the hands of a 28 year old woman who was later said to be a trans man, which means he used male pronouns. And now no evidence linked the shooters gender identity to the motive for the attack. But the Nashville Chief of Police said a sense of resentment may have played a role in that shooting. Can you refresh us on your research And some of the background when it comes to school shooters And what motivates them to commit these heinous acts? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski: Yeah, glad to so in the research that we've done, And when I talk about, you know, antecedent conditions, I don't in any way mean their profile. But you know, these are just things that a lot of the shootings seem to have in common. And we've come up with five primary predictors, antecedent conditions, And one of them is a long term history of rejection, for example, being bullied. And you know, of course, we know, that people are bullied for anything that makes them stand out as different. From what people what particularly kids consider to be the norm. A second predictor, or antecedent condition is a, an acute rejection experience, like maybe they've recently broken up with a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Third predictor is a history of psychological problems. A fourth one is a fascination with death. And then the last one is a fascination with guns And or violence. But, you know, my sort of qualifier with that is, you know, there's lots of people who have mental health problems who don't become school shooters. There's also, you know, lots of young people in particular kids who are bullied, who also don't become school shooters. So it's just these are factors that, you know, sort of create, particularly collectively a perfect storm. 

Gavin Jackson: And then Dr. Kowalski, when you look at this situation is very unique in the way that you typically have a, let's say, a stereotype that you pretty much do when it comes to a school shooter type. How did this change that dynamic? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski: Yeah, so most of most of your school shooters, at least ones that we've studied, And other people have studied,  you know, in our research, 95% of them are white heterosexual males. And so obviously, this is different, you know, in the sort of, demographic profile, if you will. But, you know, we haven't seen the manifesto or anything like that yet to know, you know, the degree to which, you know, any specific thing was the motive behind this particular shooting. 

Gavin Jackson: And when you've seen, you know, I know, we can't really speak to it, like you're saying, we haven't seen a manifesto or any details there. But when you talk about transgender... transgender issues, I'm sorry, it's become such a flash point in society nowadays, too. And we've seen the fallout from the shooting, you know, with many pundits, many politicians, using this to drum up fear maybe also passed some anti transgender legislation. This rhetoric And fear seems to be ostracizing folks that are already marginalized in so many ways. And folks who are actually at higher risk for actually being victims of violence or, or higher suicide rates. So how do you see these kinds of repercussions? What kind of repercussions? Would you see, I should say, from the result of this when it becomes like this Firestorm, And when you talk about being bullied, for example, And the repercussions of that? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski: So, you know, the first my first response to that is, I think focusing on that is misguided, you know, with all the other shootings, we haven't made a huge issue out of the fact that most of them has been the vast majority have been heterosexual male. So, you know, if we're going to focus on just the Nashville shooter, being, you know, transgender, then, you know, we should have been doing that, you know, if that's going to be our focus, And we should have been doing that with all the other shootings with being heterosexual male. So I think that's misguided that the focus on that is misguided. The second part about that you layed that out so well, in your setup for that. I think it does highlight that, you know, you said people who have been marginalized And in my opinion that that's where we need to focus our attention is whether it's because of their gender identity or because they have been bullied for some other reason. You know, it's people who are marginalized, who've been made in my opinion, who've been made to feel like they don't matter. We need to make these people feel like they matter, you know, we need to develop, you know, bullying prevention programs in school, that there are some, but we need to enhance those programs. And, you know, I think to the degree that people feel like they matter, And that they are not marginalized, then you know, those are not the people who go And typically perpetrate school shootings. So I think that's where the focus needs to be not specifically on the gender identity.

Gavin Jackson: And instead, we're kind of seeing the opposite play out at least when it comes to policy issues, too. But of course, more is needed to be done at the school level, as well. Just before we wrap up on this one, it was also interesting, too, that was a 28 year old shooter, you know, not a student there. They were previously back when I think in fourth grade, but then, you know, kind of seems like came back maybe for some sort of retribution. So very fascinating to see that kind of dynamic at play. That's pretty rare as well, I'm assuming. 

Dr. Robin Kowalski: That's very rare. Yeah, at least according to our research, the median age for the school shooter is 15. So you know, that she was, or he was considerably older. And what that shows you in my thoughts, again we don't know, you know, a lot yet because the manifesto hasn't been released. And we don't know what that manifest... manifesto is gonna say. But it suggests that some of those effects of, you know, maybe being bullied as a child or, you know, whatever it can, can have, those effects can be really long lasting, And that, you know, it just maybe, you know, just accumulated over time, And yeah, maybe now, you know, they had the means And the resources And the availability of the gun to, to act on it. 

Gavin Jackson: Very interesting to think about when we talk about this need for mattering, which we were just talking about, we've talked about that before, I want you to elaborate on that concept a little bit, And how we can be better about it, because you can mesh that concept with some of the shootings we've been seeing, unfortunately, going on across the country. 

Dr. Robin Kowalski: Yeah, so by definition, what mattering means is no making other people feel like they are important or significant. And the converse of that is people who feel like they don't matter. You know, we can call it anti mattering. And, you know, people who feel like they don't matter sometimes say that they feel invisible. And again, prior previously, you mentioned the term marginalization. And you know, you can imagine, particularly if you're a young person, maybe Elementary Middle School, being at school And feeling like you're invisible. And so you know, sometimes people who are invisible, want to be seen. So, you know, one way to be seen would be to perpetrate a school shooting. So I think that there are so many ways, really easy ways that we can go about making people feel like they matter. 

Gavin Jackson: Doctor Kowalski. And kind of along those lines, too. We saw that horrific shooting in Louisville at that bank on April 10th, where five people were killed. The shooter was apparently suicidal, had a history of depression was apparently about to be fired. Perhaps I know, a lot of these things you said, just because you have mental health issues doesn't qualify you to be a shooter in that regard. But you know, what do you see as like, a root problem for a lot of this? I mean, are we just a broken society? Because we have such a higher prevalency, for these shootings than other countries across the world? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski: Well, I think, you know, I don't like to get into gun control debates when I'm, you know, doing interviews And things like that. But I do think that's a critical issue. It's just availability of guns, in particular, for mass shootings, where the perpetrators older, you know, they can access the guns legally, And, you know, state differ, you know, the different regulations And that they have for availability of those, but, you know, I know that in that particular state, you know, there, there are no restrictions really for for access to guns. So I think it is, you know, I'm not going to state a particular opinion about people's right to bear arms, but, you know, I think we do have wide availability to guns that in other countries, it doesn't apply. So I you know, if you, you know, you know, without guns, you can't have the shooting so... 

Gavin Jackson: Dr. Kowalski since we last spoke on February 10, to now April 12, there have been 84 mass shootings nationwide, that have left 113 people dead And three injured, eight injured, including five South Carolinians who are killed, And nine injured five of those injured. That occurred during the April 7 shooting down the Isle of Palms. There was a horrific murder suicide in Sumter, in March, that left two adults And three children dead. Just a lot to be dealing with on a day to day basis. And I want to kind of talk more about news consumption this last question I have for you. And you know, we get these push alerts on our phones, we get these tweets to our phones. Then we start following what's going on with the shooting. We see the aftermath. Maybe we see victims stories, we get to learn about these people. And we see body cam footage from these horrific shootings to replayed on our TV screens. And as we scroll social media, this all makes for some sort of collective trauma I have to assume. So I've recently heard this term, problematic news consumption, which I guess is another way of saying you know, information overload. So what can we do to help ourselves, maybe limit this maybe prevent ourselves from going down a spiral that can lead to, again, some trauma in effects that we don't even know the result of? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski: I think you said the word I think we need to limit it. I think in addition to this, I do think it produces some trauma, but at the same time I also think it produces some desensitization. You know, the more we watch the things And become exposed to them or the more pod casts that we listened to about it or, you know, it's not that those things are bad. But in mass doses, they really can lead us to become desensitized. And, you know, we hear about these things. And it's like, Oh, there's another one, another shooting, And we're still drawn to the information, but they become so... it just become so commonplace in our minds that I think it is, is leading us to sort of downplay the seriousness of it, And I'm concerned about that moving forward. 

Gavin Jackson: Gotcha. Well, thank you for helping us digest these traumatic events. And hopefully we'll want to meet under such circumstances in the future. But that's Dr. Robin Kowalski. She's a psychology professor at Clemson University. Thank you again so much. 

Dr. Robin Kowalski: Thanks so much for having me again.

Gavin Jackson: To stay up to date with the latest news throughout the week, check out "The South Carolina Lede". It's a pod cast that goes on Tuesdays And Saturdays that you can find on or wherever you find podcasts. For South Carolina ETV. I'm Gavin Jackson. Be well South Carolina.