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Poll shows South Carolina overwhelmingly supports closing 'Charleston loophole'

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A Statehouse proposal to extend the criminal background check period on gun purchases was thwarted Thursday — the same day a new poll found an overwhelming majority of South Carolinians want to close the so-called "Charleston loophole."

A Winthrop University poll of 1,007 South Carolina residents found 80 percent of respondents favor extending the review time that previously made it easier for a self-avowed white supremacist to buy the gun he used in the 2015 Emanuel AME Church murders.

The poll results released Thursday found 80 percent of Republicans said they support an expanded background check effort, compared with 83 percent of Democrats.

The college in Rock Hill randomly dialed and questioned state residents Feb. 17 to March 12, before the recent mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 50 people dead.

The results carry an error margin of plus or minus 3.1 percent. Winthrop University is the most consistent surveyor of voter moods in South Carolina, issuing its polls several times a year.

"There's really no division by party on this," poll director Scott Huffmon told The Post and Courier. "Where the division is, is with the party elites like elected officials and campaign leaders. Among regular people, though, folks in South Carolina are overwhelmingly in favor of requiring a completed background check before somebody can take a gun home."

The findings come at a time when gun control legislation has simultaneously made historic strides and sputtered to gain traction.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the most sweeping gun control legislation in a generation when it advanced two separate measures to strengthen gun background checks.

One of them was the Enhanced Background Checks Act, which seeks to extend the length of FBI background checks for gun purchases from three days to 10.

Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, was the bill's primary sponsor. Fellow South Carolina Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham of Charleston joined Clyburn as a co-sponsor of the bill, along with Republican Rep. Peter King of New York. 

Since the bill's passage in the House, both Clyburn and Cunningham have publicly urged their colleagues in the Republican-controlled Senate to take up the bill by holding press conferences and penning op-eds.

In a March 4 Washington Post op-ed, the trio of lawmakers accused Republicans of being out of touch with the American public on this issue.

"It's time for Republicans to recognize that their opposition to common-sense gun reforms is out of step with the will of the public and enact these solutions," the congressmen wrote.

President Donald Trump has promised to veto the background check bills if they make it to his desk. 

In the S.C. General Assembly, a bill to extend the FBI background check period from three days to five days — half the length of time being proposed by federal lawmakers — received a hearing Thursday morning from the state's Senate Judiciary Subcommittee after the bill's primary sponsor filibustered a bill about spadefish to get a subcommittee hearing.

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State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, is the bill's primary sponsor and has filed a version of it every legislative session since the shooting at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church, where nine black parishioners were gunned down, including state senator the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

"We could do this if people could keep an open mind, but when it comes to the issue of guns, elected officials feel like they can't explain the bill to the radical right," Kimpson said the evening before the hearing for his bill.

Huffmon said there's a real political fear, especially among Republicans, to alienate potential voters on the issue of guns.

"If you are afraid of getting primaried, and having your opponent funded by the NRA or someone else who would maybe wrongly paint your vote on something like this as, 'Oh they don’t protect gun rights,' you potentially open yourself up," Huffmon said. 

He added, "The thinking is, 'Why anger the extreme of your party if you don't have to?' But on this one thing, everybody agrees on it. Nobody is marching with signs saying don't close the Charleston loophole."

Each year, Kimpson has seen slow but steady progress on getting his bill closer to passage. The first time he introduced the legislation in 2016, there was no bipartisan support for it. This time, Senate Bill 154 is co-sponsored by state Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster.

Asked if he thought the latest survey results might create political momentum behind his efforts, Kimpson said he's skeptical because it's a familiar finding.

In October 2015, a Winthrop poll found 80 percent of South Carolinians supported requiring a completed background check for a gun purchase. 

"Leadership in House and Senate takes orders from the NRA and Chamber of Commerce," Kimpson said.

Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, Kimpson accused his fellow lawmakers of refusing to have a real debate about background checks after the subcommittee refused to take up the bill. 

"We can’t even have the debate on the merits of the bill," he said. 

Though the Charleston church shooter had an arrest record for drug use — a prohibiting factor that should have barred him from buying a firearm — he was able to purchase a .45-caliber Glock when his FBI background check was not completed within the three-day deadline. 

State Sen. Tom Corbin, R-Greenville, asked Kimpson if he would be willing to support a constitutional carry bill in exchange for potential passage of his bill to close the Charleston loophole.

"If I won’t have my debate, you won't get your debate," Kimpson said.

No future hearing date was set for Kimpson's bill. He told The Post and Courier he plans to draft another bill that would expand background checks on gun purchases.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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