On Friday afternoon, FBI Director James B. Comey revealed that 21-year-old Dylann Roof should not have been able to purchase the gun he allegedly used in the Charleston massacre on June 17. The feds had three business days to look into the 21-year-old's background after he first tried to purchase the gun on April 11, and they failed to obtain a local police report showing he was ineligible, as the New York Times reported.
"We are all sick this happened," Comey told reporters at a Friday press briefing. "We wish we could turn back time."
In 30 states, when someone tries to buy a gun, federally-licensed gun dealers enter the wannabe buyer's information into the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is connected to federal databases, as well as state and local records. Within about 30 seconds, the retailer will get a response that either the request can proceed, is denied, or is delayed.
The system can typically rule out a convicted felon right away or clear someone with no history of arrest. But in the case of Roof, raw human judgment was required, because he had a case pending against him. And when the feds take longer than three days to disqualify someone, retailers are allowed to go ahead and sell that person a gun regardless, under what's known as "default proceedings."
Back in February, Roof was arrested at a mall in Columbia, South Carolina, for freaking out employees by asking strange questions. When police caught up with him, they found he was carrying Suboxone, a drug that's used to treat opioid dependence. Unlawful users of controlled substances, as well as people who have admitted to being addicted to them, aren't supposed to be sold firearms under federal law.
Because Roof hadn't yet been convicted, the FBI examiner had to do a little bit more digging to rule him out. For some unknown reason, as CBS News reported, the FBI examiner believed Roof had been arrested by the Lexington County Sheriff's office, when in fact he was nabbed by local police in Columbia, which is a municipality within Lexington County.
The confusion was reportedly compounded when the background checker reached out to police in West Columbia, which is another city in Lexington County, rather than the Columbia cops. Apparently, her contact sheet did not include details for the latter and local prosecutors never got back to her with clarification.
Amid the confusion and delays, Roof was able to go back to the store on April 16 and purchase the gun.
"The law really requires the FBI to make a rush judgment on really delicate issues," says Ari Freilich, an attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "This default proceed provision allowed 3,722 prohibited purchasers to buy guns in 2012."
While Roof's uncle initially told the press that the .45 caliber pistol was a 21st birthday gift, the alleged shooter's friends have since said that he was actually given money to purchase the gun himself. As the Times reports, big-box stores like Walmart often won't sell people a gun unless the FBI clears them—regardless of how long it takes—but smaller retailers will sometimes exploit the loophole to make a sale and pocket the cash.
When reporters descended upon Shooter's Choice in West Columbia last month, they were chased off the property.
"We don't give information out like that!" a worker apparently shouted. "I don't know anything about it. Just go!"
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