In December 2016, big billboards go up in Charleston that show an AR-15 assault rifle with a red bow tied around it and the line, “All I want for Christmas is You.” A gun store is pushing its Blackhawk brand military weapons.
Guns are embedded in South Carolina culture, with every attempt at firearm regulation trampled by the state legislature. Fathers give their sons, and some daughters, guns in rites of passage. A ceremony that survives is the first-blood ritual for adolescent hunters: a boy accompanies his father on a hunt and washes himself in the blood of the first deer he kills.
Dylann Roof got his gun. His father gave him money for it on his twenty-first birthday. “Happy Birthday! Here is $400 for the gun and the concealed carry permit,” the card read.
I went to the gun warehouse that advertised AR-15s to see the pistol Roof used for the massacre of nine African-Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015. Palmetto State Armory, in the Charleston suburb of Mt. Pleasant, is the size of a big box store. It was previously a supermarket. (The company’s motto, on its logo, is Desperta Ferro—“Awake the Iron.”) The idea that a young man shops for guns in a 40,000-square-foot store with Van Halen playing on the ceiling speakers is, in this part of the US, unremarkable.
In the middle aisles are ammunition, gun sights, accessories, gun cases, and targets—bull’s-eyes, plus targets in the shape of men, like a guy in a hoodie. On the left side of the store are racks and racks of rifles, shotguns, and assault weapons, propped like rakes, by the hundreds. And in dozens of locked glass cases, like jewelry, the handguns.
I walk along one hundred yards of glass cabinets, past the Smith & Wesson case, the Browning case, past Springfield, Sig Sauer, Kemper Pistol, Uberti, Baer, Beretta, and arrive at the Glocks: engineered in Austria, manufactured in Marietta, Georgia. Roof used a Glock 41, a .45 caliber gun that feels like artillery in the hand—black, nine inches long, thirty-six ounces loaded.
“That’s the big daddy,” says the salesman, “for target and home defense. Holds thirteen rounds, strong recoil.” The salesman is a small man with a tenor voice, which he throws an octave lower to assist in male bonding. “I have a Glock 36”—he pulls back his jacket to show the holstered gun—“smaller, better for concealed carry.”
Roof added a laser sighting to his Glock, which throws a red dot where the shot will land, and he used hollow point bullets. Hollow points are more lethal. When one hits a person, body fluids enter the tip and cause the metal slug to spread and deform into a spiked wheel, which continues to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.