Reported lapses in the FBI’s background check system allowed Dylann Roof, accused of murdering nine people at a historically black church in South Carolina, to purchase a gun. Now, the emerging details about Roof are reigniting a contentious debate over gun policy that tracks closely with similar conversations following other recent mass shootings.
Information about Roof’s previous drug charges, which should have triggered the rejection of his attempted gun purchase, wasn’t easily accessible in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). But federal law currently operates under a “default proceed” process — which means that, even if a background check hasn’t been completed, the transaction can legally go through anyway after three days have passed.
Proponents of tighter background check are pointing to the incident as proof that the current three-day standard is insufficient. As officials attempt to cross-check information between state and federal databases, advocates argue that 72 hours simply isn’t enough time to ensure that people with troubled histories are prevented from buying guns. They say background check officials need easier ways to access records across different states’ systems, as well as more resources to dedicate additional staff time to completing thorough records requests.
“The scary issue brought to light by this is just how faulty the 72-hour ‘default proceed’ is,” Garrett McDonough, the Communications Director for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement on Friday. “Inefficiencies or lack of time and resources leads to criminals and other dangerous people being able to purchase guns and, in this case, kill innocent people.”
Research has found that these so-called “default proceed” gun sales are more likely to involve an individual who would have failed a background check — something that FBI researchers have designated as a “potential public safety risk.” A disproportionate number of these cases involve people who should be prohibited from owning a gun because of their history with domestic violence.
Just two days before the FBI acknowledged the errors that allowed Roof to purchase a gun, the families of the slain churchgoeers traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for stricter gun laws. They’re asking Congress to support HR 1217, legislation that would expand background checks to the gun sales made online and at gun shows.
“I’m here today to speak up on behalf of the Charleston community, and all who are sick and tired of Congress ignoring the problem of gun violence,” Andre Duncan, whose aunt, Myra Thompson, was killed in Charleston, said at the event on Wednesday.
Nonetheless, making substantial reforms to the country’s current background check system has proven challenging, particularly as the NRA has drummed up political opposition. Even after the massacre of several elementary school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, U.S. lawmakers voted down legislation that would have implemented universal background checks. President Obama — who has repeatedly said that he’s sick of mass shootings partly because he believes the United States has the power to do something about them — has described Congress’ failure to enact gun regulations in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting as one of the biggest frustrations of his presidency.
Even without Congress’ help, there are some things that the Obama administration could do to improve background checks. Groups like the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence favor what they describe as “small, sometimes unsexy rule changes” that the administration already has the power to implement — like cracking down states that don’t report their data to the NICS in a timely manner, requiring the FBI to alert state officials after someone who wants to buy a gun fails a background check, and increasing coordination with health officials after completed background checks turn up mental health issues.