Dylann Roof, the man accused of killing nine people at an historic black church in South Carolina, was able to purchase a gun — despite the fact that a background check should have prevented him from doing so. Shortly after this news became public, early reporting that ThinkProgress relied upon in a previous draft of this post indicated that Roof obtained a gun because “data was not properly entered in federal criminal justice computer systems.” The implication was that he may have managed to arm himself with a murder weapon because of a clerical error. In reality, however, the failure in the background check system stems from a more systemic problem.
According to a statement by FBI Director James Comey, Roof obtained the gun he allegedly used in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church murders due to a rule that permits gun dealers to transfer firearms under certain circumstances even if a background check on the person seeking to buy the gun has not been completed. As Comey explains, “under federal law, a Federal Firearms Licensee must submit biographical information about a potential purchaser to [the National Instant Criminal Background Check System], and NICS has three business days to perform a background check and clear or deny the purchase.” If the background check is not completed within three days, however, the gun dealer “has the discretion to proceed with the transaction.”
In this case, Roof attempted to purchase a firearm on April 11, a Saturday. The federal employee began the background check on April 13, which was the next business day after Roof attempted to buy a gun. According to Comey, the federal examiner’s “initial check of Roof’s criminal history showed that he had been arrested in South Carolina March 1 on a felony drug charge.” but “[t]his charge alone is not enough to deny proceeding with the transaction.” Thus, the examiner continued to investigate whether Roof was, in fact, ineligible to buy a gun.
On Thursday, April 16, the examiner had not yet completed the background check. Had she possessed all the information about this case, she would have known that “Roof admitted he was in possession of drugs,” and this fact would have been sufficient to deny him permission to buy the gun. Because the examiner did not have this information on April 16, however, “the case was still listed as ‘status pending,’ so the gun dealer exercised its lawful discretion and transferred the gun to Dylann Roof.”
Though it is impossible to know whether Roof would have obtained a gun through different means if he’d been prevented from making this particular purchase, it is possible that the nine people allegedly killed by Roof would be alive today if the examiner had been able to prevent the sale from happening until after she’d completed Roof’s background check. Instead, because the current legal standard prioritizes speed over completed background checks, Roof was able to obtain the gun he attempted to purchase on April 11.