Dylann Roof, who is accused of killing nine people at a church in South Carolina three weeks ago, was able to purchase the gun used in the attack only because of lapses in the FBI’s background-check system, FBI Director James B. Comey said Friday....But was the mistake all on the part of the FBI? No.
“This case rips all of our hearts out,” Comey said. “But the thought that an error on our part is connected to this guy’s purchase of a gun that he used to slaughter these good people is very painful to us.”
Here's why the sale of the gun should have been prevented:
Federal laws prevent certain people from purchasing guns, including those facing charges that might result in a prison term of at least a year. Roof was charged earlier this year for the possession of a drug called Suboxone, a misdemeanor offense that did not meet that threshold, and so would not have barred him from making the purchase. But the rules also bar anyone “who is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance” from buying a gun. When he was arrested on March 1 for possession, Roof told investigators that he had used the drug, which should automatically have disqualified him. Somehow, that crucial fact never made it into the background-check database.Why didn't that fact make it into the database? Well, it's complicated -- but it seems clear that the FBI got bad information from local authorities in South Carolina:
The breakdown was a result of errors not only by the FBI but also apparently by local law enforcement....So there you go -- garbage in, garbage out. The information provided was bad, so the background check didn't proceed smoothly.
On April 13, a veteran FBI examiner who routinely handled 15 or more cases a day pulled up Roof’s request. Checking his criminal record, she saw a record of the narcotics arrest, which erroneously listed the arresting agency as the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department. She faxed a request for information to the sheriff’s office and to the county prosecutor. But officials at the sheriff’s office told her they were not handling the case and referred her to the Columbia Police Department.
The fact that the Columbia police handled the arrest -- not the sheriff’s department -- was not reported in the NCIC, which relies on the agency in question to submit information.
Had the examiner been able to see the Columbia police report that Roof admitted to possession of a drug, or had the county prosecutor gotten back to her and told her of the report’s existence, “that transaction would have been denied,” Comey said. The prosecutor’s office never replied to her query.I'm not saying the FBI was blameless. Here was an avoidable error:
The examiner’s effort was further tripped up by a geographic irregularity that the FBI did not reflect in its system.I'm not sure why the examiner went to the cops in West Columbia, which is a separate city from Columbia. West Columbia is in Lexington County. Columbia is mostly in Richland County, but partly in Lexington County. Confused yet? I'm sure the examiner was, too -- although the FBI's system ought to be programmed with enough information to flag these geographic peculiarities and draw examiners' attention to them.
Only a small part of the city of Columbia is located in Lexington County, with most in neighboring Richland County. The FBI’s system did not account for that jurisdictional split, and the examiner contacted only the West Columbia Police Department, which reported no record of Roof’s arrest.
But how seriously do we take this system, anyway? After the Virginia Tech massacre, the NICS Improvement Amendments Act was passed. It authorized quite a bit of money to improve reporting of information needed to conduct background checks, but in subsequent years only 5.3% of the authorized funding was ever appropriated.
If we cared about keeping gun out of the wrong hands, we'd be painstaking in our reporting of relevant information at the local level. But we don't care. An awful lot of us, especially in red states, assume that everyone who wants a gun should be given the benefit of all doubts. The system is actually designed that way: If the background check has turned up nothing after three business days but is incomplete, the sale goes through.
The system doesn't work as well as it should because we don't want it to. We want a shady character like this to still have full access to weapons:
Mr. Roof has had two previous brushes with the law, both in recent months, according to court records. In February, he attracted attention at the Columbiana Centre, a shopping mall, when, dressed all in black, he asked store employees “out of the ordinary questions” such as how many people were working and what time they would be leaving, according to a police report.We just shrug when this happens:
When a police officer questioned Mr. Roof, he “began speaking very nervously and stated that his parents were pressuring him to get a job,” but then admitted that he had not asked for applications at any of the stores, the report said.
Asked if he had any contraband, Mr. Roof said no, according to the report, but the officer searched him and found Suboxone, a prescription drug used to treat opiate addiction and frequently sold in illegal street transactions. Mr. Roof admitted that he did not have a prescription for the drug, the report said, and he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor drug possession. The case is pending.
In April, Mr. Roof was charged with trespassing at the same mall. The police report said he had been barred from the mall for a year after the drug arrest. Mr. Roof was convicted on that charge, a misdemeanor.
Two weeks [after the February arrest], ... an off-duty police officer who recognized Mr. Roof from the mall episode saw him at Earlewood Park in Columbia “loitering” in his car, according to a field report. When questioned, Mr. Roof said he was sitting in the park because “he is not allowed to stay at home when his father is not present.”When someone commits a series of suspicious acts, none of which individually rises to the threshold for gun denial that we've set, we don't want the law to consider the pattern of behavior. We let that guy get a gun. As a society, that's what we want. And sometimes, as a result, massacres happen.
He then contradicted himself by saying he “could have stayed home but did not want to,” the report said.
Mr. Roof allowed the police to examine his car, the report said. A search of the trunk yielded a forearm for an AR-15 and six 40-round magazines, the report said. Mr. Roof told the officer that he was hoping to buy an AR-15 to use at a range, but that he did not have enough money.
“They were unloaded magazines,” said a spokeswoman for the Columbia Police Department, Jennifer Timmons. “A crime wasn’t committed.”