House passes bills expanding background checks for gun sales, closing ‘Charleston loophole’

WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday passed two bills that tighten gun sales regulations, sending the measures to a divided Senate.

H.R. 8 expands background checks on individuals seeking to purchase or transfer firearms, and the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021 would close the “Charleston loophole,” a gap in federal law that lets gun sales proceed without a completed background check if three businesses days have passed.

“This bill is a critical step toward preventing gun violence and saving lives,” Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., who sponsored H.R. 8, said ahead of its passage.

That bill, titled the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, passed 227-203. It received a handful of Republican votes — eight — and had one Democrat vote against. In 2019, the bill was passed with eight Republican votes, five of whom co-sponsored the package.

The other bill passed Thursday, H.R. 1446, is linked to the 2015 shooting in Charleston, S.C, where a white supremacist shooter used the loophole to obtain firearms he used to kill nine Black people during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church. It extends the initial background check review period from three to 10 days.

The bill, which was passed 219-210, with two Democrats opposed and two Republicans in support, was authored by Democratic Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who called it “an important step Congress must take to address the epidemic of gun violence in this country.”

“If people can’t be safe in Bible study, then they can’t be safe anywhere,” Clyburn said at a press conference Thursday morning.

“Gun violence is a public health crisis,” the White House said in a statement endorsing Clyburn’s legislation.

“The federal gun background check system is a proven tool to reduce gun violence and save lives. This system … has kept millions of guns out of potentially dangerous hands,” the statement continues.

What H.R. 8 does and doesn’t do

H.R. 8, a background checks package meant to enhance reviews of those seeking to acquire firearms, does not create a firearms registry or other federal mechanisms for review.

Instead, the legislation would expand the cases where a background check is required for the sale or transfer of a firearm by requiring checks for private individuals and groups whenever selling or transferring firearms, closing the so-called “Gun Show Loophole.” The new requirements would also apply to online sales.

The bill makes it illegal for anyone who is not a licensed firearm importer, manufacturer or dealer to trade or sell firearms to another person; current federal law only requires background checks for licensed gun dealers.

Nonlicensed individuals who would like to sell or trade weapons could do so through a licensed firearms dealer who would run the necessary background checks.

As with much legislation today, the bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Republican lawmakers largely remain obstinate to any gun control measures. The bill passed with a few Republican votes, signaling there may be support among the GOP for such measures.

People could still temporarily trade and share firearms at shooting ranges, on hunting trips and when it is “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm” under the new regulations.

‘Charleston loophole’ bill first passed House in 2019

Clyburn’s legislation extends the initial background check review period to 10 days, after which, if a background check is not completed, a purchaser must ask the FBI to complete its investigation before receiving authorization.

Originally approved by the House in 2019, the bill stalled in the then-Republican-controlled Senate. This time, it passed with just two Republican votes. 

In this July 2015 photo, a church youth group from Douthan, Alabama, prays in front of the Emanuel AME Church on the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Visitors from around the nation visited the makeshift shrine in front of the church in a show of faith and solidarity with "Mother Emanuel", as the church is known in Charleston. Nine people were killed by white supremacist Dylann Roof, who was sentenced to death for the murders. (Photo: John Moore)

Conservatives and gun-rights groups argue the three-day time constraint on background checks is necessary to incentivize federal law enforcement to investigate background checks in a timely manner. The bill’s proponents argue current policy allows for a grievous and deadly oversight.

“Enacting common-sense gun control measures is a priority for President Biden and this Democratic Congress, and this legislation is a good first step,” Clyburn said upon reintroducing the bill. “This legislation is needed to keep weapons out of the hands of those who should not have them and save lives.”

Schumer vows to bring gun control bill to Senate vote

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters he would try to put the background check legislation on the Senate floor despite opposition from Republicans.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the enhanced background check legislation in the last session of Congress, but Schumer vowed, “H.R. 8 will be on the floor of the Senate, and we will see where everybody stands. No more hopes and prayers.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., predicted Republicans might support the bill.

“You can’t compare 2013 to 2021,” he said, referring to a previous push for gun control. “There are a lot of Republican senators that are thinking about voting for a proposal that allows them to get right on this issue.”

But it is unclear if there will be enough Republican votes to bypass a key procedural roadblock known as a filibuster, which would require at least 10 Republicans to vote with all 50 Democrats in the Senate and advance the legislation.

The bill could face opposition from Senate Republicans or conservative Democrats who do not support more restrictions on guns.

Contributing: Nicholas Wu

Members of Mother Emanuel AME Church return to service Sunday in Charleston, South Carolina. Thousands of people listened to the service outside the church.

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