National News

Judge Criticizes FBI Over Roof’s Gun Purchase, Describing ‘Abysmally Poor’ Choices

Posted June 20, 2018 7:55 a.m. EDT

A judge in South Carolina this week excoriated the FBI, describing in a court order a parade of errors and a series of “abysmally poor policy choices” that allowed Dylann Roof to unlawfully buy the gun that he used to kill nine African-American people in a Charleston church in 2015.

Still, Judge Richard M. Gergel of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina ultimately granted the government’s motion to dismiss about 15 lawsuits filed against it, which had alleged negligent management of criminal databases and performance of background checks.

Indeed, while the judge noted in an opinion dated Monday that the lawsuits had uncovered “glaring weaknesses” in the background check system, he ruled that any failures on the part of federal employees were a “function of distinct policy choices,” and as such the government could claim immunity under a provision that seeks to stop courts from second-guessing what he called “even really bad policy choices.”

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is operated by the FBI, had demonstrated in a variety of ways that it was “hopelessly stuck in 1995,” Gergel wrote. Still, he added later, “the victims of this tragedy” had no legal remedy.

An FBI spokesman at the agency’s office in Columbia directed questions to the agency’s headquarters and public affairs office. The FBI’s national press office in Washington did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment Tuesday night.

Andrew J. Savage III, a lawyer who represents multiple survivors and the families of several of those killed in the shooting, said in an email early Wednesday that he and a co-counsel would consult with their clients and “explore our options, both legal and political.”

“We know that this setback is not our final step,” he said.

Calling the current background check system “a sham,” he added, “No need to review the facts as everyone is in agreement that grievous bureaucratic errors were made arising from apathetic negligence.”

The court order described what FBI officials had acknowledged less than a month after the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church: Roof, who was 21 at the time, had been allowed to buy the .45-caliber handgun he used in the killings in April 2015 despite having previously admitted to drug possession, which should have disqualified him from making the purchase.

Instead, crucial information about Roof’s drug arrest made its way into a database called the National Data Exchange — but it was never unearthed by the examiner running a background check on Roof because examiners don’t actually have direct access to the National Data Exchange, Gergel wrote in his order. That policy decision by FBI officials, he said, was “the most obvious” of several “poor” choices.

The examiner, Gergel wrote, ended up stumbling over inaccurate information because of clerical errors, had to send a series of faxes and “made no effort” to contact the law enforcement agency that arrested Roof, despite being told which agency it was.

It was common, the judge wrote, “to make a single fax inquiry to a law enforcement agency and to attempt no further follow-up of any type.”

So after three business days passed with no denial issued, the firearms dealer, Shooter’s Choice, was able to sell Roof the gun and eventually it did.

“The record reveals that the FBI’s background check system is disturbingly superficial, excessively micromanaged by rigid standard operating procedures, and obstructed by policies that deny the overworked and overburdened examiners access to the most comprehensive law enforcement federal database,” Gergel wrote.

“Reports by the FBI’s Inspection Division and the then FBI director, James Comey, make much of the fact that the examiners adhered to every policy and procedure of the agency,” he continued. “Since little is required, it was hardly difficult.” On June 17, 2015 — about two months after Roof procured the gun — he showed up in Emanuel’s fellowship hall and was offered a seat for Bible study. About 40 minutes later, with the parishioners’ eyes closed for a benediction, Roof pulled the weapon out, and began to fire seven magazines of hollow-point rounds.

“We are all sick this happened,” Comey said when explaining the background check failures weeks later. “We wish we could turn back time. From this vantage point, everything seems obvious.”

Roof, a white supremacist, was condemned to death by a federal jury in January 2017.

“Perhaps the FBI, learning fully the details of the failure of its system in this tragic series of events, will promptly take corrective steps to prevent a similar failure of the system in the future,” Gergel concluded.