‘Another type of pandemic.’ Richland community leaders unite to decry recent gun violence

·3 min read
Lyn Riddle/Staff

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department has had 17 murder cases from shootings this year, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced Thursday, as other local leaders joined him in decrying recent gun violence in the area as a “pandemic.”

That count doesn’t include murder cases investigated by the Columbia Police Department and other agencies in Richland County.

The number of killings is on pace to surpass the 32 murder cases the sheriff’s department investigated last year.

Most of the victims and shooters are between 14 and 28 years old, Lott said.

So far this year, the sheriff’s department has charged 28 people in those 17 fatal shootings. Ten of those arrested can’t be publicly identified, Lott said, because they’re 16 or under.

Last weekend, two teenagers were shot on Saddletrail Road, and one of them, a 17-year-old Eau Claire High School student died. On Thursday, Lott announced that two people, aged 16 and 17, had been arrested in connection with that killing.

“Every day we just talk about it, that’s another young person that’s going to lose a life,” Lott said. “We have to send a message. ‘Just put the guns down.’”

Lott came together with lawmakers, community organizers and religious leaders to present what he called a “unified front” against rising gun violence.

Some of the solutions to stem shootings brought up at the conference were reevaluating bond for people who are repeatedly arrested, creating graduated gun possession sentences and providing better mental health services in schools.

But Lott also said strong community involvement was needed, from schools to faith leaders to parents.

“Everyone needs to say now’s the time,” Lott said.

S.C. Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, said the Legislature approved additional positions for the State Law Enforcement Division in next year’s budget, and lawmakers are looking at what they can do to help smaller law enforcement agencies.

“There are small counties that don’t have enough people to work with SLED,” Scott said, so the state is looking to set up a joint task force to assist those communities.

Closer to home, Richland County Councilwoman Gretchen Barron said the county council would be looking at how federal money from the COVID relief package could be redirected back into the community.

“When we look to the future, it’s going to take all of us,” Barron said. “It’s not your problem or my problem; it’s our problem.”

Richland County Solicitor Byron Gipson said shootings in Richland County have become “another type of pandemic.”

“We can’t arrest away this problem,” Gipson said. “I’ll tell you, you can’t prosecute away this problem.”

In the last 30 days, Richland County and Columbia have had at least six shootings and three students charged with bringing guns to schools. In neighboring Newberry County, four teens were gunned down over the weekend. The Richland 1 school district, which covers Columbia, has lost at least five students to shootings and other violence this school year.

Gun violence is a problem that’s far from unique to the Midlands, as this week’s deadly mass shooting in a Texas elementary school shows. Lott said his office would be working with school districts over the summer on their security measures. But he called on the community to be more involved in young people’s lives to stave off violence before it starts.

“Just love your kids. Be a parent,” he said. “Know what’s in their bookbag. ... Be nosy, but talk to them too, because they’re scared. They’re scared to go to the mall, they’re scared to go to school. They’re watching what’s happening, and they’re growing up in a more troubled time than we’re used to.”

But Lott pointed out that thousands of students in Richland County go to school daily without incident, and calls for guns in school only “rarely” come in to his department, Lott said.

“We don’t talk about” those students, Lott said, “but we need to.”