A bipartisan group of South Carolina senators filed two bills Wednesday to reform gun purchase background checks and penalties on prohibited people from buying guns.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, along with Republican Sens. Greg Gregory, of Lancaster, and Greg Hembree, of North Myrtle Beach, want background-check waiting periods extended from three days to five days while the state improves its reporting process to the federal government. The aim is to close the Charleston loophole in the system that let Emanuel A.M.E. Church shooter Dylann Roof purchase a gun.
Kimpson said he couldn’t definitively say, if the bill was implemented before the June 2015 church shooting, whether it would have prevented Roof from purchasing his gun, but it will help keep South Carolinians safe.
“I can tell you one of the problems the folks at the federal level were confused on, was as to where to research the substance of the crime,” Kimpson said. “So this effort is to improve the reporting, not just time limitations, but also the substance of what’s being reported. In addition, they have two additional days—for two years—to conduct the background check at the federal level.”
After two years, it will revert to three days.
Most gun background checks occur quickly. Roof, however, was flagged by the system, but human error prevented the check from discovering a previous drug charge that would have prevented him from purchasing a gun. After the three-day waiting period, gun dealers have the discretion to sell guns.
Last year, the FBI performed a record 402,978 background checks on South Carolinians interested in purchasing a firearm. The increase was a 20 percent jump from the previous record high set in 2013.
That two-day extension would expire two years after the bill is passed. A committee of members of the legal community will work during that time to clean up and streamline computer system reporting.
Under the bill, law enforcement agencies will need to report criminal incident reports, in which a person may be prohibited from obtaining or possessing a gun, to the State Law Enforcement Division within 24 hours.
“We need more uniformity and promptness in reporting these cases that would prohibit someone from being able to purchase a gun because right now it’s all over the board,” Gregory said. “If reporting had been done quicker, I think it would have prevented him (Roof) from being able to get a weapon.”
The goal is to give the National Instant Criminal Check System more information quicker. A similar action was taken by the General Assembly years ago, to prevent people adjudicated for mental illnesses from purchasing a gun. That law has prevented more than 1,000 people from purchasing a gun, the senators said.
Additionally, courts will need to report certain convictions that could preclude someone from purchasing a handgun to SLED within 10 days. Kimpson said courts are “all over the map” on how they report, their timeliness, and substance of reports.
The bill is crafted after lawmakers heard hours of testimony from five hearings across the state last year.
Hembree authored a separate bill to strengthen penalties for felons using guns to commit crimes or violence. Current state law only prohibits a person convicted of a violent crime from possessing a firearm. Non-violent felons in South Carolina can still own and purchase guns.
“The gun violence that takes place in South Carolina occurs by someone who is already a convicted felon and someone who obtained that gun illegally,” Hembree said. “We’ve had a fairly weak law in South Carolina on possession of a gun by an unlawful person.”
His bill would prohibit those convicted of a felony from possessing a gun, create graduated penalties of up to 10 years in prison for prohibited persons caught carrying a gun, and follow federal law in making it a crime for a prohibited person to attempt to purchase a gun.
Now that the bills have been introduced, the goal is to get them before the Senate Judiciary Committee as the legislative session nears its May 11 deadline. If no action happens this year, lawmakers will still have next year to work on them.
“The momentum is fading on the whole subject,” Kimpson said, on the need to act quickly on the difficult subject. “We’ve been working extremely hard to address background checks, and the bill Sen. Hembree authored is a strong bill for repeat criminals with guns.”