Loophole let thousands of abusers get guns

A photo on Dylann Roof's online manifesto shows the .45-caliber Glock pistol he used in the deadly June 17, 2015, attack at Emanuel AME Church. File

Thousands of convicted domestic abusers were able to buy guns in recent years due to the same loophole in the FBI’s background check system that allowed Dylann Roof to arm himself before killing nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.

That’s a key finding in a U.S. Government Accountability Office report which studied the effectiveness of the FBI’s background check system in keeping guns out of the hands of abusers.

Under federal law, those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence charges are banned from purchasing guns, as are those who are subject to orders of protection.

The GAO found the screening system blocked about 89,000 of those people from buying guns between 2006 and 2015. But nearly 6,800 others were able to purchase firearms because the three-day time limit for an FBI background check to clear had expired before agents could complete the review.

The time limit window became known as the “Charleston loophole” in the wake of the June 2015 Emanuel shooting because it enabled Roof to buy a pistol even though he admitted to possessing illegal drugs during a prior arrest — a factor that should have blocked him from completing the purchase.

The GAO’s findings come at a time when South Carolina is pushing on several fronts to curb domestic violence and end the state’s reign as the nation’s deadliest state for women killed at the hands of men. Last year, the state passed a law mirroring the federal gun ban for abusers, but the verdict is still out on how effective the measure has been.

Sara Barber, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said she was disheartened, but not surprised, to learn of the loophole’s effect on gun purchases for abusers. She noted that research clearly shows the odds of domestic homicides increase when a gun is available but that Second Amendment concerns often trump efforts to provide further protections to victims.

“We obviously are in support of strengthening the background-check system,” she said. “But it seems to be more important for somebody to be able to get a firearm in a certain amount of time than it is to protect the victim’s safety.”

The trend mirrors findings in The Post and Courier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series, “Till Death Do Us Part,” which disclosed that more than 300 women had died in domestic killings in South Carolina over a decade’s time, with guns being the weapon of choice in nearly 70 percent of those murders.

In South Carolina, a group of state lawmakers pushed unsuccessfully this year to extend the waiting period for background checks. While proponents argued that the measure could save lives, opponents contended that the problem would be better addressed by the FBI improving its review process. The National Rifle Association has taken a similar stance, saying Americans’ right to acquire arms should not be “arbitrarily denied because of bureaucratic delays, inefficiencies, or mistakes in identity.”

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and the third most senior House Democrat, said he’s been leading the charge in Washington to close the loophole. He told The Post and Courier on Capitol Hill the GAO’s report “tells you everything.”

He recalled a woman speaking at a press conference on gun violence a few weeks ago, telling the story of her estranged husband who got out of jail, went on the internet and bought the gun he used to shoot her and a child.

“It happens all the time,” Clyburn said. “South Carolina is number one in the country” for fatal domestic disputes, and the Charleston loophole “is part of it. And for South Carolinians to tolerate that is beyond me.”

Of the cases reviewed by the GAO, 6,221 of the offenders who were able to buy guns had been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense. Another 559 completed purchases despite facing protective orders. The study did not include checks for those with felony domestic violence convictions, nor did it determine whether any of the guns purchased due to the FBI time limit were later used in crimes.

The report noted the FBI does go on to complete background checks even if it fails to make the three-day deadline. Guns sold to people precluded from having them are then subject to confiscation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It is not clear whether that step was taken in the Roof case.

The FBI declined comment, citing pending lawsuits by survivors and relatives of those who died in the Emanuel shooting over its handling of Roof’s background check.

An ATF spokeswoman said she could not immediately provide statistics on the number of guns retrieved by the bureau each year. The most recent annual report from the FBI’s National Instant Background Check System notes that the agency forwarded 2,511 firearm retrieval cases to the ATF in 2014.

Republican state Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens helped write the South Carolina law that bans convicted domestic abusers from possessing firearms. He did so, he said, because local and state police need to have the same powers that federal authorities have to prevent abusers from keeping firearms. But he said one of the key problems with these laws is that they rely on accurate reporting to the federal government of all such convictions. And that doesn’t always happen.

Doug Pardue and Emma Dumain contributed to this report. Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556.