Eyes were closed and heads were bowed in prayer when Dylann Roof opened fire at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. He had been welcomed with open arms into a Bible study class on the evening of June 17, 2015. He left after murdering nine of our neighbors with a .45-caliber handgun he acquired through a fault in our background-check system that would later become known as the “Charleston loophole.”
Today, a firearm can be purchased after three business days even when a background check has not yet been completed. The vast majority of background checks are processed within that three-day time period, usually within minutes. But in 2016, more than 4,000 firearms were sold to people with criminal records, mental illnesses, or other circumstances that disqualify them from purchasing a firearm under federal law. In 2017, the numbers were even higher.
While a past drug arrest should have prevented Roof from purchasing his gun, the sale proceeded by default because his background check extended past three business days. Hence, the Charleston loophole.
But its consequences aren’t just limited to Charleston.
You may recall the mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, by a man armed with an AR-15. He had a domestic-violence conviction, which should have prevented him from purchasing the weapon.
Most recently, five people were murdered at a manufacturing plant in Illinois by a man who falsified his background application to cover up a criminal conviction.
There are myriad reasons why a background check may not be completed within three days. Combing through criminal and mental health records kept by 50 states and our military is arduous, further complicated by the fact some convictions have been expunged. In other instances, incorrect information is collected by the seller or provided by the purchaser — intentionally or not. Considering all of this, the fact that 96 percent of background checks are processed within 72 hours is quite impressive.
But we deserve better.
What does it say about our system that a firearm background check can be passed by default, and under what other circumstances would this be acceptable? If the FAA were forced to issue certifications to airplanes even when their inspections have not been completed, would you feel comfortable riding in that plane?
The Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2019, which I introduced with U.S. Reps. James Clyburn, D-S.C., and Peter King, R-N.Y., aims to close the Charleston loophole by extending the deadline to 10 days. If the background check has not been completed in 10 days a potential buyer may petition for an expedited background check, which must be completed within an additional 10 days.
It is a pragmatic, bipartisan and commonsense measure to ensure firearms are not sold to criminals or those with mental illness. A former FBI assistant director recently described closing the Charleston loophole to the Wall Street Journal as “the single most influential factor that could be changed without affecting the whole integrity of the process.” I would just call it commonsense.
I believe in the Second Amendment, am a gun owner and have a concealed carry permit. I’ve said time and time again that we cannot legislate away all evil in this country. But to the extent that rules can be clarified, background checks streamlined and loopholes closed, all while protecting the Second Amendment, it is incumbent upon elected officials to take action.
I encourage all of my colleagues in the House to support this piece of legislation and am hopeful the Senate will follow suit.
Despite the overwhelming and bipartisan support for this commonsense legislation, there are those who will oppose it. The NRA has defended this loophole, stating that “gun owners should not bear the burden of government’s inefficiency.” Bewilderingly, they can’t think of a single reason we should strengthen our background checks system.
I can think of nine.
U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Democrat, represents South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District.