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US House passes bill to close 'Charleston loophole' for gun background checks

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U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn was surrounded at Emanuel AME Church on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, by supporters of a legislative effort to close the so-called "Charleston loophole." File/Staff

A bill closing the so-called "Charleston loophole" by extending the length of FBI background checks for gun purchases passed the U.S. House on Thursday — largely along party lines — capping a years-long effort in the aftermath of the 2015 Emanuel AME Church massacre.

The 228-198 vote offered an emotional conclusion to the work of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, who had been frustrated for years following the 2015 shooting of nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME in Charleston.

Despite the symbolic victory for Democrats, the bill remains unlikely to become law anytime soon. Senate GOP leaders have suggested they will not take up the bill, and President Donald Trump has already vowed to veto it if it makes it to his desk. The House vote was far short of the number that would be needed to override that veto.

The measure would lengthen the amount of time a gun purchase can be delayed when the FBI has not completed a background check from three days to up to 20 days.

In remarks on the House floor before the vote, Clyburn urged lawmakers to "think of those poor souls" who were killed at Emanuel, as well as their families. 

"Are they more valuable than the inconvenience a gun purchaser may have by having to wait 10 rather than three days?" Clyburn said.

Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of one of the victims, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, sat in the gallery to watch the vote with her daughters.

"I wish that Clementa could be here," Pinckney said in a news conference shortly before the vote. "But I know that he’s smiling down and hoping that everyone will do the right thing."

The "loophole" is how Dylann Roof was able to buy the handgun used in the Emanuel shooting due to a clerical error that delayed his background check. 

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, joined Clyburn in pushing for action on the bill this year in the Democratic-controlled House.

Republicans, including those from South Carolina, opposed the measure because they argued it would put an excessive burden on citizens trying to lawfully exercise their 2nd Amendment rights to own guns.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, said he would offer a separate proposal that he believes more appropriately addresses the "Charleston loophole" without posing "undue interference" on the 2nd Amendment.

Rice's bill would allow FBI background check examiners to access the National Data Exchange, which is administered by the FBI. The exchange aggregates criminal records from various federal, local and state agencies to provide information to the law enforcement community.

An aide for Rice said FBI background check examiners don’t currently have access to it. The details of Roof’s drug possession charge — which Rice believes would have prohibited him from purchasing a firearm — were in the exchange database but the examiner was not able to access the information.

Some argued that the FBI could have stopped Roof under current law if they had been more thorough.

"It was a failure of the FBI, not the law," said U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif.

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Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association, argued anti-gun politicians were using a "shameful tactic of exploiting tragedies to market gun control that won't prevent criminals from committing murder."

"This legislation would not have prevented the Charleston murders, and even worse, the legislation is so poorly drafted it would put law-abiding citizens who need a firearm for self-defense at risk by trapping them in an endless loop of delays," Cox said.

But families most impacted by the Charleston church shooting said they were fully supportive of the move.

The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother died in the Emanuel shooting, began traveling the country pushing for gun reforms to honor the legacy of those who died when Roof opened fire during their Bible study’s closing prayer.

“I’m over the moon,” Risher said. “Their deaths are impacting change. I’m just thrilled.”

Risher, who watched the debate from her home in Charlotte, especially appreciated that Clyburn and others invoked those who died with her mother, Ethel Lance.

“Gun violence effects a lot of people, but the honor and respect they gave the Emanuel Nine warms my heart,” Risher said. Tears came then, and she paused.

“In my heart,” she continued, “I know the work that I do is not in vain. Most days it feels that way. But today, it doesn’t.”

The vote marks the second time the House has passed a gun-related bill in as many days. On Wednesday, the chamber approved a universal background checks bill that requires all firearm sellers to conduct a background check, both licensed and unlicensed.

Democrats called that 240-190 vote a major step to end the gun lobby’s grip on Washington and begin to address an epidemic of gun violence that kills thousands of Americans every year, including 17 people shot and killed at a Florida high school last year.

Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was shot in 2011, praised the passage of the "Charleston loophole" bill, which she argued would help reduce gun violence.

"My gratitude is with Congressman Clyburn for his leadership championing this commonsense legislation that will provide law enforcement officers with the time they need to do their job and finish background checks before allowing people who may be at risk of harming themselves or others from obtaining guns," Giffords said.

Sitting in the gallery with their daughters, now 14 and 9, Pinckney pondered how her husband would have wanted to be there, in the Senate, arguing for policies like the measure at hand. 
"It is an uphill battle," she said. "But it's a step. With anything, you've got to take a step."

Jennifer Berry Hawes and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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