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Charleston shooting: What we know about the attack that left 9 dead at a black church

The man suspected of carrying out a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, pleaded not guilty to 33 federal charges, including hate crimes, firearms violations, and obstructing the practice of religion.

The suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, was already indicted on nine murder charges, three attempted murder charges, and one weapons offense at the state level, according to USA Today's John Bacon.

Roof wants to plead guilty to the federal charges, but his lawyers are pleading not guilty until they find out whether federal prosecutors will seek the death penaltyNBC News's James Novogrod and Terry Pickard reported.

On June 17, Roof allegedly walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and, after sitting for some time with the congregants, purportedly shot and killed nine people — in what some officials have described as a hate crime. Three others escaped.

Roof has a racially charged history. Police said Roof made racially inflammatory statements before leaving the church's Bible study room, according to the Guardian's Raya Jalabi. A manifesto that appears to be written by Roof is laced with racism. A Facebook picture shows Roof wearing a jacket depicting the flags of racist regimes in Africa, including apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. And Roof's roommate, Dalton Tyler, told ABC News's Emily Shapiro, "He was big into segregation and other stuff. He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself."

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen described the shooting as a "hate crime," saying it was "the worst night of my career … clearly a tragedy in the city of Charleston."

A white gunman shot and killed nine people at a black church

Eight people were killed inside the church, and a ninth victim died in the hospital.

Police said the suspect was at the church for nearly an hour before the shooting.

The local coroner identified all the victims. Here's the list from the Post and Courier's Andrew Knapp:

  • Clementa Pinckney, 41: state senator, church pastor, and rising star in the South Carolina Democratic Party
  • Cynthia Hurd, 54: St. Andrews regional branch manager for the Charleston County Public Library system
  • Sharonda Coleman-Singleton: a church pastor, speech therapist, and coach of the girls' track and field team at Goose Creek High School
  • Tywanza Sanders, 26: who had a degree in business administration from Allen University
  • Ethel Lance, 70: a retired Gilliard Center employee who previously worked as the church janitor
  • Susie Jackson, 87: Lance's cousin and a longtime church member
  • DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49: who retired in 2005 as Charleston County director of the Community Development Block Grant Program
  • Mira Thompson, 59: a pastor at the church
  • Daniel Simmons Sr., 74: who died in a hospital operating room

Roof's family released a statement saying they were "devastated and saddened by what occurred," ABC News reported.

Roof's trial has already run into some problems: The South Carolina Supreme Court ordered a new judge to preside in the case as revelations surfaced that the previous judge had made racist remarks in the courtroom more than a decade ago, NBC News's Elizabeth Chuck and Erika Angulo reported.

The shooting occurred at a historically significant black church

A distant view of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

James Williams

Emanuel describes itself as "the oldest AME church in the South." AME stands for African Methodist Episcopal Church, a predominantly African-American denomination of Christianity.

As the Washington Post's Sarah Kaplan explained, Charleston's Emanuel AME Church was started in 1816 by Morris Brown, a founding pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who was fed up with the racism he encountered in other churches in the area.

The church hosted some of the prominent black activists of the time. Denmark Vesey, a founding member of the church, at one point attempted to lead one of the nation's most famous failed slave uprisings, which would have involved more than 9,000 black slaves. But the revolt was foiled when several slaves turned Vesey in, leading to his capture, a trial, and hanging.

White leaders blamed the attack on the Emanuel AME Church, saying it helped foster the attacks. They instituted harsh laws against black churches, including a ban on all-black services. The congregation was then dispersed, and the church was burned. (The congregation would continue to meet in secret.)

In many ways, the Emanuel AME Church's experience represented the history of black churches in general: it was used to evade the systemic racism of the era, and it was attacked by white leaders who wanted to keep their racist policies in place. "That is a microcosm of how and why churches have become targeted," Gerald Horne, a civil rights historian at the University of Houston, said.

Local officials called the shooting a hate crime

The mayor and police chief described the mass shooting as a hate crime.

But South Carolina is one of six states — along with Arkansas, Indiana, Georgia, Utah, and Wyoming — that has no hate crime penalty law at the state level, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Federal law, which does apply to South Carolina, penalizes hate crimes. But these cases require federal law enforcement to get involved and proceedings in federal courts, which deal with far fewer criminal cases than state courts. It typically takes high-profile cases to get the feds' attention to investigate an act as a hate crime, as the FBI has said it's doing in the Charleston shooting.

When a hate crime is prosecuted, it's typically layered on top of other charges, adding criminal penalties. So if someone commits a murder and it's deemed a hate crime, he faces criminal penalties for both the murder and the hate crime. The extra penalties are supposed to deter and punish people for acts against certain groups of people.

As ThinkProgress's Aviva Shen reported, State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, who represents the district where the Charleston church is located, has worked to pass a hate crime law in South Carolina. But his efforts have been unsuccessful — leaving the state as one of the few without extra penalties for racially motivated attacks.

The Charleston shooting follows a long history of attacks on black churches

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where a bomb killed four girls in 1963.

Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Attacks on black churches were a common occurrence throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, including a wave of firebombings of black churches in the South in the 1990s and a burning of a black church in Massachusetts the day President Barack Obama was inaugurated, as the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf reported.

Civil rights groups during the early 1960s actively targeted Birmingham for protests, knowing that the city — and the state of Alabama as a whole — was a hub for white supremacy groups and supporters of segregation. The backlash was fierce: KKK members routinely called in bomb threats — and others detonated homemade bombs — to disrupt civil rights meetings and church services. The anger eventually led to one of the most well-known terrorist attacks of the civil rights movement.

On September 15, 1963, a bomb detonated at the predominantly black 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. About 200 people were in the building, according to, many attending Sunday school. Four black girls died, and at least 20 others were injured.

News wire service UPI described the aftermath in 1963:

Parts of brightly painted children's furniture were strewn about in one Sunday School room, and blood stained the floors. Chunks of concrete the size of footballs littered the basement.

The bomb apparently went off in an unoccupied basement room and blew down the wall, sending stone and debris flying like shrapnel into a room where children were assembling for closing prayers following Sunday School. Bibles and song books lay shredded and scattered through the church.

In the main sanctuary upstairs, which holds about 500 persons, the pulpit and Bible were covered with pieces of stained glass.

It was the fourth bombing in Birmingham in four weeks and the 21st in eight years, UPI reported at the time. Up to that point, none of the bombings had been resolved in court.

The investigation into the Birmingham church bombing, the most high-profile of the cases, didn't lead to justice for decades. Robert Chambliss was convicted to life in prison in 1977, Bobby Cherry and Thomas Blanton were indicted in 2000 and later convicted to life in prison, and a fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994 before he could face trial.

For some, the feeling of neglect remains. When Congress in 2013 commemorated the victims of the Birmingham church bombing, some of the survivors and relatives told the Associated Press's Jay Reeves they weren't interested. Sarah Rudolph said she wanted compensation for the injuries she suffered, including a lost eye, and for the death of her sister, who was one of the girls killed.

"We haven't received anything, and I lost an eye," Rudolph told the AP. "It's a smoke screen to shut us up and make us go away so we'll never be heard from again."

The shooting invoked calls to take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina's Capitol

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The Confederate flag still flies at South Carolina's statehouse, imposing what's historically been a symbol of racial hatred. This has led to swift protests across the country: On social media, many have taken up the hashtag #TakeItDown to demand the flag be removed.

But the Confederate flag isn't the only remaining symbol of the South's racist past. As Vox's Matt Yglesias explained, there are dozens of monuments and statues commemorating racists and traitors who fought to keep slavery in the Civil War and pushed for racist Jim Crow laws, such as segregation, in the aftermath. "Consider Forrest High School in Marshall County, Tennessee, named after Confederate General and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest," Yglesias wrote. "Forrest also lends his name to a state park in Tennessee and the ROTC building at Middle Tennessee State University."

All of these symbols are meant to show support for the South's heritage. But they ignore that much of that history is mired by racism — and, during events like the Charleston shooting, they appear to give some historical legitimacy to racist acts.

Gun violence is much more common in the US compared with its developed peers

In response to the shooting, President Barack Obama highlighted a troubling fact: America has far more gun violence than its developed peers around the world.

"This type of mass violence doesn't happen in other advanced countries," Obama said. "It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is within our power to do something about it. I say this recognizing that the politics of this town foreclose a lot of those avenues. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it."

Obama is right: Gun violence is way more common in the US than in its developed peers — and it's not even close. This chart, compiled using United Nations data collected by the Guardian's Simon Rogers, shows that America far and away leads Canada, Japan, and several European counterparts in gun homicides:

But why does the US have so many more gun homicides than other advanced countries? One possible explanation: Americans are much more likely to own guns than their peers around the world. And the empirical research shows places with more guns have more homicides.

According to survey data compiled by Rogers, the US had 88.8 guns per 100 people in 2007 — compared with 54.8 in the second-closest country, Yemen. Reddit user Phillybdizzle mapped Rogers's data, showing just how much the US stands out compared to the rest of the world:

gun ownership map Phillybdizzle/Reddit

Criminal justice experts widely recognize this is a result of cultural and policy decisions that have made firearms far more available in America than in most of the world.

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