State Politics

4 years after Charleston church massacre, what have SC lawmakers done?

A day of mourning at Mother Emanuel Church

A day of mourning in Charleston, South Carolina for nine members of Emanuel AME church who were shot and killed by a gunman.
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A day of mourning in Charleston, South Carolina for nine members of Emanuel AME church who were shot and killed by a gunman.

On June 17, 2015, nine African American worshipers were gathered for a Bible study when they were shot down and killed at Charleston’s “Mother” Emanuel AME Church. The next day, in a sanctuary across town, leaders from across South Carolina converged to mourn.

At the Morris Brown AME Church, Regional Bishop John Richard Bryant stood in the pulpit and issued a passionate plea for gun control in the face of the tragedy.

Hundreds of attendees leaped to their feet in a standing ovation, but notably then-Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott remained seated in the front row, The State reported at the time. After the vigil, Scott said he attended to support his community. “I wasn’t there to make political points,” he said. “Staying seated was best thing to do.”

Now, four years after an avowed racist killed those nine parishioners — including the church’s pastor, Democratic state Sen. Clementa Pinckney — South Carolina lawmakers still remain seated when it comes to answering calls for gun reform.

While the majority of South Carolinians — 80%, according to a March poll conducted by Winthrop University — favor requiring background checks to be completed before a gun is sold, South Carolina’s politicians have done nothing in the wake of the shooting.

No bills restricting who can purchase or own a gun have been passed by the South Carolina Legislature. And lawmakers have stalled on proposals aimed at expanding the number of days a gun purchaser must wait for a background check to be completed.

That change alone, supporters say, could have given FBI investigators time to review the criminal history of now convicted killer Dylann Roof, preventing him from being able to purchase the gun he used in the mass murder.

Though more than 150 bills concerning guns have been introduced in the halls of the State House, the only two signed into law since the 2015 shooting have expanded gun ownership rights. One new law allows concealed weapons permit holders from Georgia and North Carolina to carry in South Carolina. And as part of a new sentencing reform law, law enforcement must return seized firearms and ammunition to owners found innocent of a crime.

Nineteen bills have been proposed since the church shooting that would have expanded the wait period for gun purchases or required that a criminal background check be completed before a buyer can get their gun.

None made it out of committee.

‘Difficult to do anything on guns’

Supporters of strengthening background checks say doing so should be easier to do in a state that became the home of a nationally mourned tragedy that shed light on weaknesses in firearm laws.

S.C. Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, has been a vocal proponent for closing the loophole that allows gun purchasers to obtain guns after a three day waiting period whether or not their background check has been completed. But as he’s introduced bills that would close the so-called “Charleston loophole,” he’s faced fierce opposition from some Republican colleagues.

“Many create a distraction with the suggestion that (completing background checks) somehow infringes on the Second Amendment,” Kimpson said. “Lawful gun owners should applaud a complete background check bill.”

But Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said without a three day deadline, he isn’t sure that the federal government would complete background checks in a timely manner, so there isn’t a lot of support for giving the feds more time to complete a background check.

“I think it would be very difficult to get the votes to do that,” Massey said. “... Ultimately, you have to have a consensus to move forward on things like that, and right now, I don’t sense there is a consensus to do anything that has been proposed by legislators from the Charleston area.”

Division, he believes, is the main reason gun legislation has stalled at the State House. Often, gun bills lean hard in one political direction or another, making it difficult to find bipartisan support.

“My perspective is firearms laws are probably one of the most passionate and divisive issues in the Legislature right now,” Massey said. “Its difficult to do anything on guns one way or another.”

Bipartisan agreement could be possible on certain laws, Massey said, pointing to past bills that would mandate clerks of courts to report to the State Law Enforcement Division more quickly if someone receives a judgment that would prohibit them from having a gun.

But that bill has been introduced five times since 2015, and has never made it past committee doors.

To pass major reform, Kimpson said he believes there will need to be a visual outpouring of support for gun legislation from residents of the state.

“As much as you saw the outcry for the education reform bill, we need a similar ground swell of support for reform,” Kimpson said.

Ultimately, though, this year’s education reform bill did not pass either.

Kimpson said he has no intention of giving up on passing legislation to close the loophole.

“I’m learning from the history of this legislation and trying to retool so that, hopefully, we can garner more support,” Kimpson said.

Other states take action

Unlike South Carolina, other states have managed to push through laws expanding background checks and limiting who can legally purchase or have a gun, Director of the Giffords Law Center Laura Cutilletta said. Her organization focuses on preventing gun violence and writing firearms policy.

In the face of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, Sunshine State legislators passed a sweeping gun bill, which raised the minimum age for purchasing a firearm from 18 to 21, provided more mental health funding for schools and created court orders that allow police to seize guns from persons deemed a threat.

In 2014, after a mass shooting in Isla Vista, California, legislators passed a law that would allow family members to ask a court to declare someone a risk so that their guns can be removed. In total, 15 states have passed similar legislation, Cutilletta said.

Seven states have passed laws addressing the “Charleston loophole” by either requiring a background check to be completed before a purchaser takes possession of a gun or expanding the deadline: California, Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah and Washington.

When it comes to passing laws regulating gun ownership, most states take one of three approaches, she added: adding time to the waiting period for background checks, creating a gun permit which requires a background check and enacting a mandatory waiting period after gun purchases.

“A lot of times, people don’t understand the issue that well and they have an emotional reaction to hearing about any gun law that is proposed,” Cutilletta said. “Actually, a law like this is very much in keeping with the Second Amendment because the Second Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to allow reasonable regulation, and background checks are about as reasonable as you can get.”

SC Dems in Congress taking steps

While S.C. legislators have reached an impasse when it comes to passing any gun legislation, Democratic congressional leaders from the Palmetto State pushed a bill through the House of Representatives that would close the loophole in February.

The bill — championed by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and supported by U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, of Charleston — would extend the waiting period for a background check to 10 days, instead of three. During the debate, Clyburn took jabs at Republicans who argued against the measure without mentioning those who died at Emanuel AME.

“Are they more valuable than the inconvenience a gun purchaser may have by having to wait 10 rather than three days to make a purchase?” Clyburn asked. “If you’ve gotta have a gun right now, chances are you have no useful purpose, no redeeming value, in the purchase of that gun.”

The federal bill has not been brought up for a vote in the Republican-controlled U.S.Senate.

Emily Bohatch helps cover South Carolina’s government for The State. She also updates The State’s databases. Her accomplishments include winning a Green Eyeshade award in Disaster Reporting in 2018 for her teamwork reporting on Hurricane Irma. She has a degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.
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