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In an unusual move, GOP Sen. Tim Scott endorses gun background check bill

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) at the South Carolina Inland Port groundbreaking ceremony in Greer, S.C., on March 1, 2013. (Gerry Melendez/The State/TNS)

It’s been more than two years since a white supremacist killed nine black church parishioners with a gun he legally purchased, despite not meeting the criteria for passing a federal background check.

This week, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who has frequently opposed gun control measures as a member of Congress, signed on to legislation aimed at preventing future acts of gun violence such as the shootings that devastated his hometown of Charleston in 2015.

Since Scott was first elected to Congress in 2011, his response after nearly every mass shooting has been to caution against politicizing a tragedy.

“It’s not my practice” to co-sponsor gun control legislation, he said Thursday.

He explained to McClatchy, however, that he was supporting this particular bill — co-sponsored by Republicans and Democrats — because it was narrowly focused and could directly address the so-called “Charleston Loophole,” the term that has been used to explain how Dylann Roof got the green light to buy his firearm.

Roof was subject to a three-day waiting period before he could take his gun home from the store to accommodate an FBI background check. Partly due to a paperwork error, those three days elapsed before authorities could determine Roof’s record of illegal drug possession, which would have disqualified him from buying the weapon.

The bill Scott supports would bolster resources and create incentives to ensure that state and federal authorities are reporting relevant records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The measure also would penalize federal agencies that fail to properly and completely report relevant records.

“When you think about the Charleston so-called ‘loophole,’ and having an actual impact on making sure that agencies are doing what they’re supposed to do to prevent what happened in Charleston, possibly from happening, it would be something that I wanted to sign onto,” he said.

Scott added that he might have voted on other gun control packages that have been introduced previously, had they come up for votes. As a member of Congress, however, Scott has voted against measures in the past that would have strengthened background check procedures, including a bipartisan compromise hatched in the aftermath of the 2012 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. The measure did not receive the necessary Republican support to advance.

But given the uptick of mass shootings around the country — specifically the recent massacres in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas — there’s some indication that congressional Republicans may be ready to move legislation to strengthen background check procedures.

The legislation Scott has endorsed also has the backing of the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, who has the clout to help ensure the bill moves through the legislative process.

Cornyn told reporters Thursday he had spoken to Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, about advancing the legislation through expedited procedures that could get it to the floor by the year’s end.

“We seem to have found a point of consensus among the right and the left,” Cornyn said with confidence.

In its current form, the bill does not specifically address the length of background check waiting periods. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the only Democrat in the South Carolina congressional delegation, has made it clear this needs to be addressed.

Clyburn, who represents some of the Charleston area, as of Thursday afternoon hadn’t yet read the bill, but said he was eager to see how the measure evolves as lawmakers ready it for a vote.

“The way I look at almost anything that comes out of this body is, it’s one thing to have a piece of legislation. It’s another thing to have effective legislation,” he said. “You can have all the background checks you want. If you don’t have the surety that these background checks will be effective, then what have you done? … Three days have been proven insufficient.”

Clyburn also noted that extending the waiting period has been a sticking point in the past for Republicans who don’t want to increase regulatory barriers to gun ownership.

He said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., the leader of the party’s task force on gun violence, once said closing the Charleston Loophole was a nonstarter in negotiating a bipartisan background check bill. Clyburn admitted he didn’t know if Thompson still felt this way, and Thompson’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, Clyburn said he hoped Scott was prepared to back a bill that truly would prevent another Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting.

“He knew some of those people and their families better than I do,” Clyburn said of Scott’s relationships with the victims of the shooting. Both lawmakers are African-Americans and regular church attendees. “I would hope he would honor them by ensuring that that Loophole gets closed.”

Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who represents Charleston, agreed that the three-day background check window should be extended to give authorities more time to turn up potential problems.

“I have long been of the belief that there are certain loopholes or unseen provisions that in essence allow crazy people, or people who would otherwise have been prevented from buying a gun. The perfect example is the Charleston Loophole,” said Sanford. “I have said, ‘Make the period longer.’”

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