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Maryland needs to close ‘Charleston’ gun loophole | COMMENTARY

Some lawmakers believe Maryland background checks to purchase a gun should be extended from seven to 30 days.
Some lawmakers believe Maryland background checks to purchase a gun should be extended from seven to 30 days. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

For decades the Maryland General Assembly has been a leader in passing common-sense gun safety legislation. Through the hard work of dedicated lawmakers and tireless gun safety advocates, our state has managed to save thousands of lives from gun violence.

The “red flag” extreme risk protective order bill, the rapid fire trigger ban, and a measure requiring convicted domestic abusers to surrender their firearms are all examples of recent life-saving measures. But the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated a loophole in Maryland’s gun control laws that must be closed before tragedy strikes.

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Five years ago, on June 17, 2015, a loophole in federal law allowed a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, to purchase a firearm that was used to murder nine Black congregants at Mother Emanuel AME Church. We remember the lives of Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Graham Hurd, Susie J. Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, DePayne Vontrease Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Kibwe Diop Sanders, Daniel Lee Simmons Sr. and Myra Singleton Quarles Thompson.

A federal background check should have prevented their killer from purchasing a handgun, but because the background check wasn’t completed within three days, federal law allowed the purchase to go forward, and nine people’s lives were taken. After the FBI’s review, then-Director James Comey said “the bottom line is clear: [the gunman] should not have been able to legally buy that gun that day.”

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This is now known as the “Charleston Loophole”, but it isn’t limited to South Carolina, as we recently learned in Maryland. While our state’s handgun purchasing laws are stronger than federal law, the same loophole exists, which allows dealers to sell a regulated firearm if a background check is not completed after a seven-day waiting period. This is typically enough time, but COVID-19 spurred a historic surge in gun purchases, challenging Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) ability to process background checks within the seven-day window.

In April, Montgomery County Council Vice President Tom Hucker authored a letter signed by all members of the council to Gov. Larry Hogan expressing concerns about the state’s capacity and requesting that the background check window be extended. The letter was never responded to, but in June, the County Council’s fears became reality. A hardware failure at DPSCS crippled the state’s ability to conduct background checks. This exacerbated the existing backlog of applications resulting in the release of 54 handguns without background checks in just four days.

When an abusive partner has access to firearms, statistics show that domestic violence is more likely to turn deadly. According to research published in the American Journal of Public Health, the presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the risk of homicide for women by almost 500%. Our state is lucky that none of those 54 weapons were ultimately sold to a legally prohibited individual. Yet this should be a sobering reminder that this loophole may have resulted in a domestic abuser, a felon, or other prohibited individual from accessing a firearm that they should not have access to.

That’s why we call on Gov. Hogan and DPSCS to identify the specific issues that caused the hardware failure, make that information public, and, if necessary, fund an upgrade or renewal of the licensing division’s systems. Most importantly, we urge the Maryland General Assembly to pass legislation in the next legislative session to implement preventative measures to extend the background check period for up to 30 days in the event there is another system failure.

We must protect the safety of all Marylanders and ensure that our background check process works as intended so that prohibited purchasers can’t have access to firearms in the event that background checks are delayed. The state legislature must take action to close this loophole.

Tom Hucker (tom.hucker@montgomerycountymd.gov) is vice president of the Montgomery County Council and has represented the 5th District of Montgomery County since 2014. Sen. Will Smith (will.smith@senate.state.md.us) has represented the 20th Legislative District in the Maryland General Assembly since 2016.

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