EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first installment in a monthly series examining the issues facing the country in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the hot-button issues at hand and where local voters stand.
The race for the White House is not short on proposed gun policies and rhetoric. Candidates are confronting the topics of rights and violence on stage, off stage and on dedicated web pages.
The Second Amendment grants Americans the right to bear arms, and the U.S. is ranked No. 1 in the world in terms of gun ownership. With that right comes great responsibility; tens of thousands of Americans are killed or injured each year from gun violence.
Firearm deaths were on the rise in South Carolina, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, at least since 2014. There were 893 firearm deaths in the Palmetto State in 2017, 891 in 2016, 850 in 2015 and 767 in 2014.
Over the summer, Aiken County saw at least five shootings in the span of three days, including one just outside of downtown Aiken in broad daylight.
As of Jan. 1, 2019, there were more than 459,000 active concealed weapons permits in South Carolina, according to the S.C. Law Enforcement Division's tracker. A little more than 1,000 permits were revoked in 2018.
The topic – guns – often incites the fiercest Thanksgiving battles and the sharpest political barbs, dividing people, places and politicians.
Often, the gun debate forges two camps: one favoring less control, government reach and red tape and the other favoring more in one way or another. But, as with any generalization, there's a spectrum of gray – a lot of room to maneuver between the two extremes.
Meet Scott Usry and Emilie DeGryse.
In everyday life
Scott Usry can often be found near the Savannah River Site, at an ordinary looking compound.
There – at the Government Training Institute, beyond the sleepy center of Snelling in Barnwell County – he's the training director. GTI was founded in 2003 to provide weapons and tactics education to those who seek it and to address the needs of state and local law enforcement divisions. Usry joined in 2019.
To say Usry, a father, is familiar with weapons would be an understatement. And he preaches what he practices – and vice-versa.
"So my biggest deal, not only because of where I come from or who I work with and all this, but because I believe in personal responsibility," he said, "is if you choose to carry a weapon, you need to be trained with that weapon."
Usry described himself as a swing voter, "because it's not about what's good for me at this point." If a Democrat has a good idea, one that will better the nation, he'll support it. The same goes for ideas sprung by Republicans or independents.
"It's not about us at this point," said Usry, who's in his 40s. "It's about what we're going to do for the next generation and the generation after that."
And that includes gun policy and debate.
"This whole issue is about, or should be about, what's better for our children. So if we take guns away, does that solve the violent-crime problem in America? No. Evil is evil," he said. "If they don't have a gun to use, they're going to pick up the next implement; if they don’t have a knife to use, they're going to pick up the next implement."
Instead of enacting stricter gun-control laws – which Usry believes will simply be ignored by criminals and will, rather, hinder law-abiding citizens – the focus should be on stricter, more effective penalties.
Beyond that, he explained, people need to better teach themselves – "stop being sheep" – and throw themselves into broader discussions, more adult discussions, on guns, gun reform and even the Constitution. Education, he believes, is key.
"The thing people have got to understand in society today is we don't have to agree on everything to still get along," Usry said.
If Usry was made to vote now, he'd vote for President Donald Trump. That doesn't mean he's a diehard fan, though.
"Do I agree with everything he's said and done since he's been in office? By no means. But you show me a president that someone agrees with everything, alright?" he said. "I didn't agree with everything Obama did, either. But there are some things he started doing that were really, really great for the country, and there were some things he did I didn’t agree with."
A 'sensible' approach
Emilie DeGryse is a working mother of three and is quite active in the greater Aiken community.
She leads the Aiken chapter of Moms Demand Action, an organization (founded one day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012) pursuing what it describes as sensible gun reform. She is also the Aiken lead for Students Demand Action, an analogous group.
DeGryse, who described herself as no fan of President Trump, got directly involved with the gun-reform movement in the wake of the Townville Elementary School shooting in 2016 and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018.
The violent events, and the media aftershocks, had a profound effect on her.
"And sometimes that's what it takes," DeGryse said, "that personal connection to realize, 'Oh my god, my kid could be shot going to school, on the playground.' So I was in a panic."
Immersing herself in the cause, Moms Demand Action, specifically, dissolved that anxiety and fostered a sense of purpose and control.
"Even if I'm just one person, I'm doing something, because to sit back and do nothing, it's just not happening anymore," DeGryse said. "Thoughts and prayers aren't enough."
She now advocates for a healthier, wider gun dialogue as well as "sensible gun laws": universal background checks and red flag rules, for example. Reinforcing the value and points of responsible gun ownership – "it's not anti-gun" – plays a significant role, too.
"Whoever is in office just needs to be open. It's not my way or the highway," DeGryse said. "I think we all need to be open to some sort of change, but what's going on right now isn't getting any better, so something's got to change."
DeGryse doesn't have a favorite when it comes to presidential candidates, but she has attended town halls with former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang – all Democrats.
"I liked Beto," DeGryse said, laughing, referencing former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, who dropped out of the presidential race late last year.
Buttigieg, Warren and Yang all have a page on their respective websites dedicate to gun policy or gun violence. O'Rourke, during a presidential debate, notably said, "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47."
The presidential candidates – their policies, too – will face their first formal test in early February at the Iowa caucuses.
South Carolina voters will have their first say later that same month. The Democratic primary is set for Feb. 29.
President Trump, who late last year vowed to pass stricter gun policies and then seemingly retreated, carried South Carolina in the 2016 election. No Republican primary is being held in the state this year.