Dylann Roof should not have been allowed to buy a gun and only did so because of breakdowns in the federal criminal background system, the FBI’s director said Friday.
Director James Comey attributed the problem to incomplete and inaccurate paperwork related to an arrest of Roof weeks before the shooting.
“We are all sick that this has happened,” Comey told reporters in an unusual, hastily scheduled meeting at FBI headquarters. “We wish we could turn back time because, from this vantage point, everything seems obvious. But we cannot.”
Roof, 21, bought a .45-caliber Glock in April before authorities said he showed up June 17 at Emanuel AME Church and fatally shot nine people.
He had been arrested in February after Columbia police officers said they found him at a mall with prescription drugs.
Police say he admitted at the time to possessing illegal drugs. Under federal rules, that admission alone should have disqualified him, even though he wasn’t convicted of the charge.
Roof was booked at the Lexington County Detention Center on Feb. 28 after being arrested by the Columbia Police Department.
Roof originally was charged with a felony for the drug offense. A search for those arrest documents Friday shows it changed to a misdemeanor charge. Lexington County court records show that Roof in March faced a first-offense charge for possession of a controlled substance without a prescription that officials said is a misdemeanor.
The FBI background check examiner who evaluated Roof’s request to buy a gun never saw the arrest report because the wrong arresting agency was listed on the rap sheet that she reviewed, Comey said. Had the West Virginia-based examiner seen the Columbia police report, the purchase would have been denied, Comey said.
The request was on hold for three business days as the FBI examiner sought information about whether it should be approved or rejected. Once that window closed, the firearms dealer — Shooter’s Choice in West Columbia — used its legal discretion to allow the sale to be completed.
“If she (the FBI examiner) had seen that police report,” Comey said, “that purchase would have been denied.”
That’s a weakness not only in the federal law but in South Carolina laws, said Jonathan Hutson, of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “South Carolina has some of the weakest gun laws and slowest reporting in the nation. Every day in South Carolina, people like Roof are able to buy guns online or at gun shows with no questions asked.”
The Brady center is pushing for passage of a congressional bill that would expand the checks to online sales and gun shows, as well as provide $400 million to states’ law enforcement agencies to submit reports faster.
The FBI refused a Post and Courier request for a follow-up interview with Comey.
Andre Duncan, nephew of shooting victim Myra Thompson, who rode with a group to Washington to support the bill’s passage, said it could only help. But if Roof slipped through the cracks, there’s really nothing that can be done.
“It puts me back. I’m at a loss for words when it comes to that,” Duncan said. “I don’t want to hear any more about him on the computer, on the TV, in social media. I just want to keep moving away from it as an individual, as a community and a country.”
When Columbia police searched Roof’s jacket pockets Feb. 28 at the Columbiana Centre mall, where he had been asking employees suspicious questions, Roof said the strips that officers found were Listerine, according to the arrest report. Pressed for more answers, he acknowledged that they were Suboxone, a prescription drug used to treat opiate addiction. Asked if he had a prescription, he “stated that he did not,” the police report said.
He was arrested and booked into the Richland County jail the next day. He was later released on his own recognizance.
Comey said he learned about the problem on Thursday night and that FBI officials planned to meet Friday with relatives of the nine victims of last month’s church shooting in Charleston. He told The New York Times he had also directed an internal 30-day review into how the FBI uses criminal background checks in gun transactions.
The background check is not foolproof. If a check does not come back before the three-day waiting period ends, a gun can be sold without it. That lapse led to the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 33 people. And it’s not difficult for people who can’t buy guns to come up with one.
Columbia attorney Arthur Aiken, who defends clients against gun violation charges, said he didn’t know how often background checks break down, but that he had not come across it in his practice. But with “straw” purchases by another person and other means to get a handgun, he wondered if the check’s failure would have made a difference.
“He legally bought a gun and probably shouldn’t have gotten it that way,” Aiken said. “But he could have gotten it other ways.”
Comey’s announcement came within hours of the Confederate flag’s removal from the S.C. Statehouse grounds. Families of the victims attended the ceremony.
State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, who also has pushed for stricter gun laws, said thorough background checks and a longer waiting period are needed, but in the case of Roof, “There’s enough blame to go around everybody, in all fairness.”
Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this story contained an error.
Andrew Knapp, Prentiss Findlay and The Associated Press contributed to this report.