U.S. House committee advances bill to close ‘Charleston loophole’

The U.S. House of Representatives took its first formal action Wednesday night to respond to the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, S.C. — nearly three and a half years after the event.

Also on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the House Judiciary Committee voted to advance legislation to close the so-called “Charleston loophole.”

The 21-14 vote was an assertion of Democrats’ new power in the majority of the legislative body, having campaigned in the midterms on a promise to curb gun violence by tightening the nation’s gun laws — an approach unpopular with Republicans who fear Democrats are on a crusade to strip Americans of Second Amendment rights.

All Democrats on the Judiciary Committee voted for the bill, while all Republicans opposed it.

The committee’s vote Wednesday was also a sign of Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s influence as the third most senior member of House Democratic leadership to promote his top legislative priorities: The South Carolina lawmaker introduced the bill only two days ago.

Clyburn’s bill would end what are referred to as the “default proceed” transactions, which allowed Dylann Roof, a self-professed white supremacist, to obtain the gun he used to kill nine black parishioners at a Bible study on June 17, 2015.

Roof was subject to the current, three-day waiting period before he could take his gun home from the store to accommodate an FBI background check. However, partly due to a paperwork error, those three days elapsed before authorities could determine Roof’s record of illegal drug possession, which would have disqualified him from buying the weapon.

Extending the federal background check window to 10 days, proponents argue, would account for human error and make sure guns don’t get into the wrong hands.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., pointed out that most background checks come back positive or negative within minutes; if it takes longer than three days to come up with a conclusion, he said, “there should be cause for concern.”

The top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, argued it wouldn’t have prevented the Charleston church shooting because Roof committed the massacre two months after getting his gun.

Collins also said extending the federal background check window to 10 days would be overly burdensome. It actually would impose a waiting period that’s more stringent than the bill to close the Charleston loophole currently being considered by the South Carolina State Senate, which would widen the waiting period to five days.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced Clyburn’s legislation after a contentious, 10-hour debate on a larger, comprehensive gun background check bill that revealed deep acrimony between members of the two parties and illustrated just how partisan the gun debate has become.

There are Republicans who support closing the Charleston loophole: Along with Clyburn and South Carolina’s other Democratic member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, the bill advanced by the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday night was co-sponsored by Republican U.S. Rep. Peter King of New York.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., has in the past indicated a willingness to back legislation to address the loophole. Earlier this week, he told The State he was interested in looking at the text of the new House bill.

“I’m interested in it,” Scott said. “I need to see what it says.”

While the bill is all but certain to pass the full House in the weeks ahead, it isn’t likely to get taken up in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.