Congress must finally close the ‘Charleston loophole’

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“He is reloading…” Mrs. Polly Sheppard whispered to a police dispatcher over the telephone as she lay on the basement floor of Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015. She was hiding under a table as an avowed white supremacist placed more bullets into his gun to continue his assault on worshippers who had just welcomed him into their weekly Bible study. He ended his assault after firing a total of 77 shots killing nine people, including her pastor and a former intern of mine, using a gun he should not have been allowed to purchase.

Current law provides just three days for officials to complete a background check for a gun sale. If the check is not concluded in that period, the purchase may proceed. Due to an error in the paperwork, which may have been intentional, the background check for the killer of the Emanuel-9 was delayed and he got his .45 caliber Glock.

There is strong, bipartisan public support to close this loophole and the “Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021,” does that. And a Winthrop University poll found 80 percent support for HR 1446, including among many gunowners.

Today, 90 percent of background checks are completed within minutes. Ninety-seven percent are done within three days. My legislation gives law enforcement agencies the time needed to complete the small number of background checks that may, for whatever reason, be more complicated. If it’s still not resolved within 10 days, the purchaser may take an easy online step to petition the FBI to expedite the check.

Evidence shows that sales occurring with incomplete background checks are four times more likely to involve a prohibited purchaser. In an average year, about 4,000 prohibited purchasers slip through the loophole. That number exploded to an estimated 7,500 last year.

I believe the House will pass my bill, as it did last year. And, as before, its fate will be in the hands of the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) buried it in his graveyard in the 116th Congress and Republicans seem poised to subject it to a similar fate in this, the 117th Congress.

There are several other bills that enjoy overwhelming, bipartisan public support facing the same obstacle; raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, creating a path to citizenship for immigrant children brought to this country by their parents, and safeguarding and restoring voting rights. I believe the time has come to end the procedural maneuver that holds important legislation hostage to arcane rules.

“Where there is a will there is a way” is an adage that was on ominous display by Republicans under President Trump. They used the filibuster to deny President Obama judicial appointments and circumvented it to give the super-rich enormous tax breaks. Of course, Democrats used it to pass the Affordable Care Act and last week to pass the American Rescue Plan. With few exceptions, however, Democrats circumvent the filibuster to enhance and expand America’s greatness to our extraordinary, ordinary citizens; and Republicans use it to maintain the institutional advantages for the rich and well-to-do.

The history of the filibuster is instructive. It is nowhere in the Constitution. Cloture — a vote to end debate and bring a measure to a vote — was first instituted in 1917 and was used sparingly. After Brown v. Board of Education, however, it has become a weapon to stop civil rights legislation and is an often-used tool to suppress racial and minority rights.

Proponents of the filibuster will argue that I am injecting race where it doesn’t belong. But no matter their stated intent for filibustering House-passed legislation in this Congress, much of the effect is minority and low-income communities and citizens are being disproportionately disadvantaged by their actions. We must abandon tools of oppression, irrespective of tradition. Changes in procedures and rules should be made as time and circumstances dictate.

We are gridlocked by the partisan divide. That is not what the American people voted for, and that is not what they deserve. The American people voted for and deserve a federal government that will close the loophole that resulted in the murder of Mrs. Sheppard’s friends and fellow parishioners.

This week, as the House passes H.R. 1446, the Enhanced Background Checks Act, I ask us to think about what is at stake. If we close the Charleston loophole, Mrs. Sheppard and so many others irrevocably scarred by the act of a lone gunman who should have been prevented from having a weapon will know that their friends and family members didn’t die in vain; that the American system reflects their hopes and aspirations; and that their prayers do not go unanswered. 

Before the Mother Emanuel murderer left the church, he told Mrs. Sheppard he was going to spare her life so she could tell the story. She has told the story and has done so powerfully. She and others are waiting for their congressional representatives to respond to their pleas.

James Clyburn is the House majority whip.

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