POLITICS
12/14/2015 06:18 pm ET

Senators Had To Cancel A Press Conference About A Mass Shooting Because Of A Mass Shooting

Remember that time nine people were killed in Charleston?
Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy were trying to push legislation giving the FBI more time to complete back
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy were trying to push legislation giving the FBI more time to complete background checks on gun sales.

WASHINGTON -- Connecticut's Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy were planning to hold a press conference in early October to push legislation that would prevent licensed dealers from selling a gun without a completed background check. Their bill was a response to the June shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine people in church. The shooter, Dylann Roof, was able to purchase his .45-caliber Glock pistol even though the FBI hadn't finished his background check.

Then, Chris Harper Mercer killed 10 people and wounded nine at a community college in Oregon. Blumenthal and Murphy called off the press conference.

"We planned to announce it, then the shooting occurred, and we had to postpone it because the perception would have been inappropriate," Blumenthal told The Huffington Post. "We decided that we should be expressing sympathy, which we sincerely felt at the time, rather than advocating a particular policy position."

Any momentum the Democrats' legislation could have picked up from the Charleston shooting was lost, since the guns in the Oregon rampage were purchased legally. The two are familiar with the cycle of massacre followed by no reform: Even after 20 first-graders and six educators were killed in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012, legislation to require background checks for private gun sales failed in the Senate several months later.

"One of the problems is that the common question about any proposal is, 'Would that have prevented that tragedy?' -- so there's sort of a mentality or a mindset that proposals have to fit the last mass shooting," Blumenthal said. "But of course the mass shootings continue to occur tragically and unnecessarily. We need to view the issue in totality, to work toward preventing these tragedies whenever and wherever they occur."

In South Carolina, the loophole that Blumenthal and Murphy's legislation would have addressed might well have prevented Roof from obtaining his weapon. At the time Roof was arrested in February on an unrelated matter, he admitted to using drugs illegally. An admission of illegal drug use counts among the factors that disqualifies someone from purchasing a gun from a licensed dealer.

But due to various data entry errors and inter-agency miscommunications, the FBI didn't see Roof's arrest record when he set out to buy the Glock pistol. Federal law says that if the FBI is unable to complete a background check within three business days, the gun dealer may complete the transaction, which is what happened in Roof's case.

Republicans seized on the news that bureaucratic errors on the part of local law enforcement and the FBI had contributed to Roof's ability to buy a gun, using those failures to divert discussion about giving law enforcement more time to complete a check.

"It's disastrous that this bureaucratic mistake prevented existing laws from working and blocking an illegal gun sale," Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement at the time. "The facts undercut attempts to use the tragedy to enact unnecessary gun laws. The American people, and especially the victims' families, deserve better."

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) rejected that sort of non-response by introducing the Background Check Completion Act. His bill, which would stop retailers from selling guns before the background check is complete, has 49 Democratic cosponsors. Some retailers, including Walmart, already exercise their discretion by waiting for a definitive go-ahead from the FBI before completing a gun sale. Clyburn's bill would make this a required practice for all licensed dealers.

"Every time a piece of legislation comes up regarding guns, the first thing Republicans say is, 'Well, that would not have prevented this from happening,'" Clyburn told HuffPost. "They cannot argue that fixing the law would not have made a difference -- it would have made a difference. They cannot say that about Charleston."

Roof's ability to buy a firearm despite his record illustrates a broader national problem. According to the FBI, more than 2,500 guns were sold in 2014 to people who should have been barred from purchasing a weapon. Since 2010, the three-day deadline for background checks has let gun retailers proceed with over 15,000 sales to individuals who were later found ineligible to purchase a firearm.

The three-day limit, in effect since 1998, was a choice made to appease gun rights advocates and the National Rifle Association. Before the National Instant Criminal Background Check System was implemented that year, the local law enforcement officers who handled background checks had five days to make the call as to the purchaser's eligibility. Now, Justice Department guidelines require NICS reviewers to make an immediate decision in 90 percent of cases.

"As the Charleston shooting rampage painfully shows, there are some cases where more time to investigate before a firearm is transferred would mean more lives saved," the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence said in a July statement.

Recognizing that three days isn't always enough time to complete a background check and that waiting periods can also help prevent impulsive acts of violence, nine states and the District of Columbia require waiting periods for some or all types of gun sales. But other states have decided that waiting periods are unnecessary: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed a repeal of his state's 48-hour waiting period just a week after the Charleston shooting.

Giving the FBI more time to complete a background check may save some people thinking of suicide. In states that have background check requirements for both licensed and private gun sales, the rate of suicide by gun is lower than the rates of suicide by other means. Roughly 20,000 of the 30,000 people killed by guns in America each year kill themselves.

Mark Glaze, former executive director of the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, said that lifting the background check deadline or imposing a waiting period for gun sales could reduce the incidence of suicide. But proponents can't point to a wealth of research supporting that assertion because Congress, backed by the NRA, passed an amendment restricting federal funding for gun-related research in 1996.

"It's intuitive, but there's good reason to think that a waiting period will reduce the number of suicides because for many it's an impulsive act. Because of the NRA's bar on research, there isn't a ton of evidence to support what we suspect is true," Glaze told HuffPost.

A study published this year by professors at Johns Hopkins University found that Connecticut's suicide rate fell after it required licensing for gun purchases in 1995. The study also found that Missouri's suicide rate increased after it repealed a similar law in 2007. Additional research could create more momentum for policy change.

Children place flowers outside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine churchgoers were shot dead during
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Children place flowers outside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine churchgoers were shot dead during Bible study on June 17.

A waiting period for gun sales might also prevent more domestic abusers from purchasing guns. Lindsay Nichols, a senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, noted that a misdemeanor assault doesn't disqualify someone from buying a gun unless it involved domestic violence, but the record doesn't always indicate which misdemeanors are which.

"Very often, a domestic violence abuser is convicted of assault, and the record doesn't say whether it was a domestic assault or not, so it's up to the state to provide information about the case to make that determination," Nichols said. "That can be really difficult and sometimes the information just doesn't get to the FBI in time."

In South Carolina, local gun control advocates are pushing for lengthier and more thorough background checks. They have public opinion on their side: A September poll found that 80 percent of South Carolinians favor legislation requiring that a background check be complete before a would-be gun buyer can take the firearm home.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has included fixing the background check deadline in her package of gun control proposals. But such policy discussions kept getting postponed by mass shooting upon mass shooting. After Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people at a holiday office party in San Bernardino, California, Democrats jumped at the opportunity to attack Republicans over their opposition to legislation introduced by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) that would prevent people on the no-fly list from purchasing guns.

The focus on the no-fly list, and away from background checks, is frustrating for Clyburn.

"That's what's got me upset more than anything else," he said. "Dylann Roof was not on the terrorist watch list -- he probably should have been on it, because he's a terrorist, no question about that -- but you're not going to solve this problem of the Dylann Roofs of the world with the terrorist watch list."

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