U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has co-sponsored a piece of legislation intended to strengthen the background check system in response to the deadly November church shooting in Texas.
The Fix NICS bill, introduced by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, came a week after a shooter in Sutherland Springs, Texas, attacked a Baptist church on Nov. 5, killing 26 and injuring 20 others.
The shooter, 26-year-old Devin Kelley, should have been prohibited by law from purchasing or possessing firearms because of a domestic violence conviction in a court-martial while in the U.S. Air Force, but the Air Force failed to record the conviction in a database used by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to flag prohibited purchases.
Under current law, a federally licensed gun dealer must perform an FBI background check on anyone purchasing a firearm by running the name of that person through NICS, which relies on information provided by state governments and federal agencies. The bill Corker has co-sponsored would require those entities to develop plans within one year to ensure coordination and reporting of relevant records.
"It is very important that federal agencies and state governments take the time to comply with existing federal law and submit the relevant information to NICS in order to ensure that those who have lost their right to possess a firearm are prohibited from purchasing one," Corker said in an emailed statement.
"I have long supported improving how our background check system operates, while at the same time ensuring that Second Amendment rights are not infringed upon," he added. "The Fix NICS Act meets that test, and I am proud to be a cosponsor of this important piece of legislation."
Corker was encouraged to sponsor the bill during a November meeting with members of Chattanooga's faith community, and several said they were pleased to see him follow through.
"I'm elated. It's an incremental improvement in keeping our communities safer and it's very much welcomed," said Clay Thomas, of Rivermont Presbyterian Church. "The whole experience was incredibly refreshing in a time when civility has fallen by the wayside — to be able to gather people from different backgrounds and different political persuasions and meet with a senator and feel heard."
Thomas said the group was motivated, much like the bill's architects, to advocate for a strengthened background check system after the shooting in Texas.
"About four of us got on a conference call after the Sutherland Springs shooting and that was the impetus for moving on this particular issue at this moment," he said. "It was in a house of worship. I had actually written two different columns in the Times Free Press about common-sense gun legislation. On that call I said, 'I'm not really interested in writing anymore about this. Let's go to the senator.'"
The Rev. Doug Fairbanks, of First-Centenary United Methodist Church, joined Thomas in the meeting two days before Thanksgiving and said Corker listened attentively to their concerns.
"This interfaith group gets together throughout the year and has dealt with various issues related to a better world for all of us and a better city and Chattanooga based on our understanding of who God would have us be," he said.
"It couldn't have been better. He listened to us — was very comfortable in that setting — and we walked away from there very positive about how he and his staff received us."
The Senate version of Fix NICS enjoys bipartisan support from senators representing 20 different states, but an amended version passed by the House on Dec. 6 faces more criticism. Representatives linked Fix NICS to the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, a bill that would allow gun owners to more easily carry concealed firearms across state lines.
"It's disappointing that they're saddling something that a majority of the population is in favor of — improving background checks — with something there's not a majority approval for," Thomas said.
"What we had was bipartisan legislation with overwhelming support in Congress and in the country and it's now been tainted by the NRA lobby, which somehow is able to dictate gun policy despite being the minority opinion."
Representatives for Cornyn, the bill's original sponsor in the Senate, did not return a request for comment, but he has publicly expressed disapproval of the House decision to link Fix NICS with the concealed carry act.
"I support the constitutional carry, because I view it kind of like a driver's license. If you have a license of one state, you shouldn't have to get a separate license in another state, but I think it's a mistake to try to combine this with the Fix NICS background check," Cornyn said in an emailed statement.
Corker's office did not return a request for comment about whether he would support the concealed carry measure in addition to strengthened background checks.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at email@example.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.