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Massacre in a Charleston church is a tragedy for the entire nation

Will the massacre of nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church represent the final outrage that brings this nation to work to close its racial divide?

Those killed, ages 26 to 87, were all black. The 21-year-old charged with the killings is a white man with racist beliefs. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime.

Dylann Storm Roof acquired the gun in April, possibly as a birthday present. Although his Facebook “friends” list included many black people, recent profile photos showed his kinship to white supremacy. Some of his white friends recalled disturbing statements that they now wish they had not shrugged off.

On Wednesday night, Roof is reported to have made his way to the nearly 200-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Calhoun Street and sat down for an hour with several parishioners and the church pastor engaged in Bible study.

Not long before the rampage began, survivors report, the gunman said such things as “I have to do it” and black people “rape our women” and are “taking over our country.”

Whatever words used to describe the gunman – terrorist, deranged, mentally ill or just plain evil – the circumstances that left these churchgoers dead and their families and friends in mourning need to be addressed.

This was an act committed by one individual and not representative of America, or even white America. However, despite some hope that electing an African-American president was the beginning of a “post-racial” America, this nation continues to grapple with hate crimes.

There has been an increase in the number of hate groups in the past 15 years fueled by the country’s changing demographics, according to Richard Cohen, speaking on National Public Radio. Cohen is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which researches hate groups in the United States.

Attacks on predominantly black churches in the United States have been documented over the years, including one under construction that was set afire in 2008, shortly after Obama was elected. Among the most notorious was the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four little girls.

But it is not just race relations in need of serious attention. We are hearing the usual calls to address gun violence: Will political leaders listen, or cave in to gun rights groups as has happened in the past?

The Manchin-Toomey amendment, a Senate bill supported by President Obama following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School a few years ago, would have merely required background checks for all commercial gun sales in the country. The bill died in the Senate.

South Carolina’s gun laws are among the nation’s most permissive. While tougher restrictions may not have made a difference in this case, it’s hard to argue against background checks that would help keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

The president spoke of the tragedy in Charleston just as he spoke after other mass shootings at Sandy Hook, a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and two separate incidents at Fort Hood in Texas. Once again he called for a shift in attitudes on gun control.

He is absolutely right when he says: “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”

The massacre of nine churchgoers in Charleston is an unthinkable tragedy and an affront to all Americans.