The Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney’s office, and the FBI have opened a hate crime investigation into the shooting at a progressive black church that left nine dead Wednesday night. The shooting, carried out by a young white man who reportedly sat in Bible study for an hour before opening fire, was quickly identified by Charleston police as racially motivated.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this is a hate crime,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen told the Post and Courier.
But South Carolina is one of just five remaining states without a hate crime law.
Though there is now federal legislation that distinguishes hate crimes and empowers federal agencies to investigate them, most states have additional statutes on the books that specify tougher sentences and penalties for crimes motivated by hatred of a certain group of people. South Carolina, Arkansas, Wyoming, Georgia and Michigan are the only states without any such laws.
County Rep. Wendell G. Gilliard, who represents the district where the targeted church is located, has fought for years to enact a hate crime law in South Carolina. But efforts to catch South Carolina up to the rest of the country have repeatedly failed.
The bill Gilliard introduced during the last legislative session would have created penalties for assault or threats committed because of a victim’s race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, color, national origin, or age, as well as boost penalties for property destruction intended to intimidate the victim. Gilliard has also pushed to define assaults on the homeless as hate crimes.
South Carolina police reported 51 hate crime incidents in 2013, the latest available year of data. Most law enforcement agencies are not required to report hate crimes to the FBI, so many more crimes may be going unreported. Charleston reported just two racially motivated cases that year.
Though it’s difficult to determine how many hate crimes occur every year, South Carolina has revived the push for a state law after major incidents. A young gay man, Sean Kennedy, was killed outside a bar in Greenville, SC in 2007. His killer, who allegedly yelled anti-gay slurs before the attack, received a shockingly light sentence, ultimately spending only a year in prison, plus 30 days of community service and regular anger management classes. South Carolina LGBT rights advocacy group helped introduce hate crime legislation in 2011 shortly after another gay teenager was attacked outside a convenience store. The momentum before the latest iteration of the hate crime bill stemmed from a hit-and-run suspected to be motivated by racial bias.
The state hosts 19 known hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, most of which are focused on white supremacy and racial hatred. Former South Carolina Sen. and current Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint (R) argued vehemently against the passage of federal hate crime legislation, warning it was a “dangerous step” in the persecution of thought crimes and religious views.