The Charleston Shooter Should Never Have Been Able to Get a Gun. Now, Victims' Families Can Sue the Government Over It.

A federal court reversed a ruling that argued the government couldn’t be held responsible for background-check loopholes.

Despite a prior drug offense, the Charleston church shooter was able to buy a gun a few months before the massacre because of a flaw in the background-check system. And now the families of his victims will be able to sue the federal government over it.

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the nine victims’ family members and survivors of the June 2015 shooting at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church can sue the federal government for the system flaws that made it possible for Dylann Roof to buy his weapon.


Friday’s decision reverses a lower court’s ruling that argued the government couldn’t be held responsible for those loopholes.

Roof purchased a handgun legally in April 2015 even though his admission to a drug offense earlier that year should have prevented that. Two months later, the avowed white supremacist used that gun to kill nine black parishioners who’d gathered for Bible study at Mother Emanuel.

Federal law requires licensed firearm dealers to run a prospective buyer’s name through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to make sure they don’t have something disqualifying in their history, such as a previous felony conviction or a record of illegal drug use.

Roof had been arrested earlier in 2015 for possession of Suboxone, a Schedule III opiate that’s often prescribed in opioid replacement therapy. He didn’t have a prescription, and he admitted to the offense.

A drug arrest alone won’t bar someone from buying a gun, but it should throw up a red flag requiring further investigation. If the arrest resulted in a felony conviction, or if the facts of the case showed that the buyer had actually used the drug (by self-admission or testing at the time), then their purchase request will be denied.

However, Roof’s offense was entered incorrectly into the NICS database, which triggered a delay in the background check process. After three business days lapsed, Roof got his gun — despite the background check still pending.


Under current law, a prospective gun buyer can receive their gun after three business days even if the federal background check is still pending. This loophole is known as the “default proceed.”

Weeks after the massacre at the South Carolina church, a historically black congregation, then-FBI Director James Comey released a statement that laid out exactly what had broken down in the background check system to allow Roof to buy his gun.

“I do not only want to understand all the facts, but I want to know if there are ways to improve our process, our procedures, and our training,” Comey wrote. ‘We are all sick that this has happened.”

In February, the House passed a bill called “The Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2019” that would extend the waiting period after a gun purchase from three to 10 days. If the check still hasn’t gone through after 10 days, a prospective buyer can request an expedited review, which would give the FBI another 10 days to complete the process. The bill went to the Senate for consideration earlier this year, and there’s been no movement on it since.

Roof, meanwhile, was convicted on 33 federal hate crime and murder charges, and in January 2017, was sentenced to death. He is being held on death row at Terre Haute Federal Prison in Indiana.

Cover: Gary Washington holds up a rose before placing it on the casket of his mother, Ethel Lance, following her burial service, Thursday, June 25, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. Lance was one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church last week. (AP Photo/David Goldman)