Blunt, Hawley: Listen to Missourians about gun loophole that led to my wife’s death

·5 min read

My wife’s death made the local news, but it wasn’t much covered beyond greater Sacramento, California. It certainly didn’t get significant media attention in Missouri.

Her name is Amber Fawn Wooton-Clark, and she was shot and killed in her car after work two years ago. She wasn’t a victim of a mass shooting that made the national news. Rather, she was one of approximately 100 people who die from gun violence every day in this country.

It feels especially unfair because Amber and I lived in California, a state with relatively strong gun laws, but she was a victim of weak laws 2,000 miles away. A few months prior, her murderer legally bought a gun from a Missouri gun dealer, despite not passing a background check.

I am certainly biased, but I believe it’s well past time for federal lawmakers to fix the loophole that killed my Amber.

Under federal law, licensed firearm dealers are required to conduct background checks on all gun purchasers. When a dealer queries NICS, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, one of three results returns: proceed, deny or delay. Proceed means the sale goes forward, and deny means no sale is permitted.

When Amber’s murderer tried to buy a gun, NICS returned “delay.” From that moment, the FBI had three business days to complete the background investigation and return a decision. After three days with no response from the FBI, the dealer was legally allowed to proceed with the sale.

In October 2018, Amber banned a man from the library branch she supervised because of his aggressive and disruptive behavior. Two months later, while backing her car out of her parking spot after work, that man returned and ambushed Amber, shooting her in the head, face, chest and back, 11 times at point blank range with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun.

We later learned that this man had a history of domestic violence and involuntary commitments related to violent paranoid schizophrenia.

During my 21-year Air Force career, I was well trained on gun safety. So, it seemed to me that anyone with such a criminal and mental illness history should not have easy access to guns. Nonetheless, a prosecutor explained that the purchase was made lawfully under Missouri state law, taking advantage of the loophole that negated the requirement for a completed background check.

This three-day proceed provision is often called the “Charleston loophole,” because it also allowed a 21-year-old white supremacist to obtain the gun he used to kill nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015.

In the aftermath of Amber’s murder, I have become quite familiar with the Charleston loophole. I have learned that the FBI simply doesn’t have the human resources to investigate every delayed response within three business days. States such as California have legislated longer windows, but many states, including Missouri, still only adhere to the federal minimum.

According to experts, if the FBI had more time to dig into the complicated history of Amber’s killer, his firearm purchase would have been denied. But three days was not enough, and it cost me my wife.

The National Rifle Association calls the loophole “a necessary component of our current background check system,” and stresses that firearm dealers are not required to complete transfers. So, effectively, after three days, Amber’s fate was removed from the capable hands of the FBI and placed solely onto the judgment of some guy who runs a gun shop.

In the military, we say that “regulations are written in blood.” That is because the standards for conducting dangerous activities are often developed as the result of a death or injury that occurred before the standards were codified. Because a military unit’s performance is only as strong as its weakest link, failure to maintain standards has fatal consequences.

Similarly, the patchwork of state laws and loopholes regarding background checks for gun sales means that certain states compromise others. In our case, without a federal law closing the Charleston loophole, California’s gun laws were only as strong as Missouri’s.

This past March, the U.S. House passed a bill increasing the time limit on delayed background checks from three to 10 business days. This is a law that would not delay gun purchases for upstanding citizens who can quickly pass background checks. This is a law that would give the FBI more time to identify dangerous people who are prohibited from purchasing guns. This is a law that would save lives.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely this bill will pass the Senate this session. In fact, the Senate will struggle to pass a federal bill requiring background checks on all gun sales — a law 93% of Americans, including 89% of Republicans, support.

For reasons incomprehensible to me, Missouri Sens. Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley won’t listen to their constituents, to gun owners, to veterans and to survivors of gun violence who demand better background checks with no loopholes.

My wife Amber was a librarian who was killed for doing her job. If a librarian can die in the line of duty, then we are all at risk. And, we will not be safe until the people of Missouri elect lawmakers who refuse to allow innocent Americans to die at the hands of dangerous people with guns.

Kelly Clark is the widower of slain librarian Amber Fawn Wooton-Clark. He is a retired U.S. Air Force senior master sergeant.

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