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Gun control bills prove divisive

Rep. Madison Cawthorn speaks on HR1446 on March 11. CSPAN screenshot Rep. Madison Cawthorn speaks on HR1446 on March 11. CSPAN screenshot

A pair of gun control bills passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week and are now heading for the Senate. Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn kept a campaign promise to vote against such proposals, delivering a fiery speech on the House floor telling Democrats that “here in real America, when we say, ‘come and take it,’” referring to a popular Second Amendment rallying cry, “we damn well mean it.” 

Cawthorn also said that he spoke for millions of Americans, and specifically, the 700,000 people in his district, but as debate over HR8 and HR1446 continues, there’s at least one constituent in his district who disagrees. 

Both bills were heard in the House on March 11, and although neither mentions anything about gun confiscation, they both in essence deal with shoring up a background check system riddled with loopholes that can allow prohibited purchasers to end up armed. 

The first, HR8 , is titled the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021. In substance, it says that for firearms transfers between unlicensed individuals, a licensed importer, manufacturer or dealer must take temporary possession of a firearm from a seller and run a background check on the buyer. If the check comes out good, the transfer can proceed. If it doesn’t, the firearm returns to the seller. 

There are several groups to which HR8 would not apply, including law enforcement officers, private security or members of the armed forces within the scope of their official duties. 

Exceptions would also exist for “good faith” transfers “between spouses, between domestic partners, between parents and their children, including step-parents and their step-children, between siblings, between aunts or uncles and their nieces or nephews, or between grandparents and their grandchildren if the transferor has no reason to believe that the transferee will use or intends to use the firearm in a crime or is prohibited from possessing firearms under state or federal law.”

The measure has earned the support of one of the nation’s best-known proponents of gun violence prevention policies. 

“With the original bill being created by our organization’s founders, we are in great support of it,” said Brian Lemek, executive director of Brady PAC. “The passage of HR8 is just a common sense solution to this very complex problem. We have gun violence, but 90 percent of Americans support expanded background checks. You wonder why we didn’t have more than eight Republicans [as co-sponsors].”

Brady PAC was founded in 2018 as the political arm of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which itself was founded by James and Sarah Brady and shepherded the 1993 Brady Law  through Congress. 

James Brady, an Illinois Republican, was serving as President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary on March 31, 1981, when a mentally troubled 25-year-old man opened fire at the Washington Hilton, wounding Reagan, Brady, Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy and D.C. Police Officer Thomas Delahanty. 

All four survived, but Brady’s head wound impaired his speech and left him able to mobilize only through the use of a wheelchair until his death in 2014. 

The 1993 law that bears Brady’s name was an update to the Gun Control Act of 1968 and instituted the background system currently in place. 

“It’s the most significant piece of gun legislation ever, but times have changed,” Lemek said. “There are a couple of loopholes that exist that have made it possible for prohibited purchasers to acquire firearms. Gun shows back in the day weren’t this massive enterprise to purchase and exchange firearms and accessories, et cetera. They were really to showcase what’s new out there. They did not exist in the same format that they do today.”

The other way times have changed since the adoption of the Brady Law, Lemek said, is the invention of the internet. 

“Who would have known that you would be able to access all this information via the internet, including the ability to purchase a firearm? The [current] legislation does not take into consideration online sales, because there were no online sales,” he said. “There have been no changes to the legislation since its original passage in the mid-nineties, so this is just effectively taking a really good bill and making it better and bringing it up to the times.”

A national poll conducted in 2015 by the Center for American Progress says that 83 percent of gun owners, and 72 percent of NRA members support  increased background checks, and six different national polls conducted in 2016 and 2017 puts that figure between 84 and 94 percent. 

Cawthorn told The Smoky Mountain News on March 15 that he remains opposed to HR8. 

“I’m against bureaucracy,” he said. “There are certain aspects to increased background checks that I can get behind. You know, maybe if we could pierce the veil of HIPAA and allow people to really get an actual look into somebody’s mental health, I think that would be something that’d be very powerful and beneficial.”

The other bill that passed the same day as HR8 was HR1446 , the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021. 

“It would close what we call ‘the Charleston loophole,’” Lemek said. “A lot of great people were murdered in a church by a kid who should not have gotten his hands on a firearm. He should not have had that ability because he was a prohibited purchaser.”

On June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old white supremacist and neo-Nazi walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and joined a dozen people in a Bible study group. When they closed their eyes in prayer, he shot them. 

“The FBI has three days to finish a background check,” Lemek said. “Around 90 percent of all gun checks are done in about two minutes, and 97% percent are done within at least three business days. So that leaves a very, very small percent of the population that has to deal with this, roughly 3 percent. Now, that 3 percent, it might take four days. It might take a week. It might take a week and a half.”

There was some sort of initial problem with the Charleston shooter’s background check that resulted in an initial delay at the time of purchase, but as the law is written if no determination can be made through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, called NICS, within three days, the transfer can still proceed. 

“Instead of waiting longer, they issued him the gun,” Lemek said. “The check came back later saying that he should not have had it.”

Cawthorn thinks HR1446, if enacted, could end up holding unintended consequences. 

“The big problem is that there’s really no sun-setting clause on this issue, so when they’re saying that they want to have increased time on background checks and give you another 10 days, that sounds very benign, but there is language within the bill that would allow them to weaponize this and allow them to just hold it up indefinitely,” he said. “Now, do I think the FBI would do that? No, but I do believe that it’s a slippery slope we can fall into and this law would give them that loophole eventually.”

When he spoke in the House in opposition to the bills on March 11, Cawthorn was more direct and absolute in his opposition to HR8 and HR1446. 

“If we lose the Second Amendment then the First [Amendment] will fall. I want to remind my colleagues of a simple fact that is far too often swept under the rug by the left — Americans have a right to obtain a firearm for lawful purposes,” he said. “I’ll say it again louder for those on the left sleeping in the back — Americans have a right to obtain firearms. This is my right, and Mr. Speaker this is your right, but let me be clear to everyone in this chamber: you will not take this right away from us. I know it’s easy to be sucked into the D.C. bubble but outside of here in real America when we say ‘come and take it,’ we damn well mean it.”

At the conclusion of his brief speech , Cawthorn opined that the measure was unconstitutional. 

“I speak for millions of Americans,” he said. “I specifically speak for 700,000+ Americans in my district when I say that if you think this bastardization of the Constitution will be met with silence then you know nothing of the America I know.”

Part of Cawthorn’s statement, however, may have been a bit of an exaggeration. 

“No, he doesn’t speak for me,” said Haywood County resident Natalie Henry Howell. 

On April 30, 2019, a 22-year-old former student walked into a classroom at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and began firing. Howell’s son, Riley, ran toward the gunman without hesitation and stopped him, but not before losing his own life in the process. Since then, Riley Howell has been universally hailed as a hero  for preventing further violence. 

His family now operates a charitable foundation, and his mother has spoken out on gun control measures in the past — most notably in January 2020 as the Haywood County Board of Commissioners deliberated passing a so-called “Second Amendment sanctuary” resolution. 

“I think we can all agree that we want our country to be safe. We want our schools to be safe. We want our churches, we want our public venues to be safe, and this is a sensible reasonable thing to do,” Howell said about HR8 and HR1446. “If you look at the background check acts and see what they’re trying to accomplish, I can’t see why anybody would not support them. When you look at the fact that these are bipartisan bills, that more than a hundred Americans die from gun violence every day — my son being included in that count — I think that you have a different perspective when it hits you personally and that if there is any way that we can strengthen our background check system again, to make it so that people who can’t lawfully have a gun aren’t able to get one, then that’s the right thing to do.”

Cawthorn said that if he could speak directly to Natalie Henry Howell’s mother, he knows what he’d say. 

“I would express the sorrow, how sorry I am for what she is going to have to go through,” he said. “Then I would say that I am sad that the Democrats, they always stand upon tragedy to try and get some kind of bill passed but what this bill is doing is asking law-abiding Americans to trust that criminals will not go outside of the law to acquire a firearm. With the amount of firearms that exist in the country, and especially ones that don’t have serial numbers, ones that can’t even be tracked, these bills would not have stopped the UNC-Charlotte shooting.”

He’s right — like Brady’s attacker and the Charleston church shooter, Riley Howell’s killer acquired his firearm in compliance with existing law. 

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