Court allows Charleston church shooting victims to sue over background check system

Court allows Charleston church shooting victims to sue over background check system
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A federal appeals court ruled Friday that survivors and family members of victims from the 2015 mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., can sue the federal government after the national background check system failed to prevent the shooter from being able to obtain a firearm.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit concluded that a lower court judge was incorrect in ruling that the federal government was protected from lawsuits under two provisions.

“Because neither provision affords the Government immunity in this case, we reverse the district court’s order granting the Government’s motion to dismiss,” the three-judge panel wrote.


The Justice Department could still petition the 4th Circuit to reconsider the case. 

"The families are one step closer to closure," William Wilkins, lead attorney for the survivors and victims' families, told BuzzFeed News on Friday.

"What this case said was that the government by law is tasked with developing and implementing and maintaining a system that identifies individuals who by law are not entitled to possess a weapon ... every case is tied to the facts, but this case says that the government is not immune from discharging its responsibilities."

Former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyShowtime developing limited series about Jan. 6 Capitol riot Wray says FBI not systemically racist John Durham's endgame: Don't expect criminal charges MORE released a statement shortly after the 2015 shooting, which killed nine black churchgoers, outlining faults in the federal background check process that ultimately allowed the shooter, Dylann Roof, to purchase the handgun used in the attack. Roof was sentenced to death in 2016 after being found guilty by a jury on all charges. Roof is appealing his conviction before the 4th Circuit. 

"Dylann Roof, the alleged killer of so many innocent people at the Emanuel AME church, should not have been allowed to purchase the gun he allegedly used that evening," Comey said in the statement, which the 4th Circuit cited in its decision.

Federal law bars anyone convicted of a felony or who has illegally used drugs from purchasing or owning a firearm and mandates that federally licensed gun dealers run purchases through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is overseen by the FBI.

Roof, who bought his firearm from a federally licensed dealer in South Carolina a few months prior to the shooting, had been arrested on a drug charge, which alone would not have barred him from purchasing a gun. However, a NICS representative did not immediately contact the correct police department when trying to determine if Roof had used or possessed a controlled substance, resulting in a delay that was long enough to allow the dealer to proceed with the sale. 

The NICS reviewer ultimately discovered that Roof admitted he was in possession of a controlled substance, which the 4th Circuit noted would have made the purchase illegal, had it been caught in time.