How FBI's Dylann Roof gun check hurts Obama's gun control agenda

After the killing of nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., President Obama urged a ‘greater sense of urgency’ on gun control. But an FBI mistake – not weak laws – allowed alleged shooter Dylann Roof to buy a gun.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS
FBI Director James Comey testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing July 8, 2015. As part of a background check, the FBI failed to prevent Dylann Roof from purchasing a gun. Roof is charged with killing nine people in a South Carolina church.

President Obama pushed Americans to call for stricter gun controls in the wake of the June 17 Charleston church massacre, complaining that the admitted killer, Dylann Roof, “had no trouble getting his hands on a gun.”

What the President likely didn’t know when he made those comments is this:  It wasn’t a lack of gun controls, but a bureaucratic failure, that led to Roof obtaining the gun legally, due, it turns out, on a senior FBI document examiner’s unfamiliarity with South Carolina geography.

As such, details revealed Friday in the Dylann Roof case add to the complexity of the President’s earlier call for a “greater sense of urgency” on gun safety, as FBI Director James Comey said Friday that the agency “felt sick” about its role in the Charleston tragedy – specifically, a failure to spot a drug charge that would have disqualified Roof from buying a gun on April 11.

According to Mr. Comey, a senior examiner started working on Roof’s application on April 13, digging into the details of a drug arrest from earlier this year, which had the potential for disqualifying the application. But, being unfamiliar with South Carolina geography, she contacted the wrong law enforcement jurisdiction, which said it had no details on the arrest. A federal law allows the FBI three days to do a background check before either approving it or giving gun stores the discretion to sell the gun anyway.

By the end of that week, Roof had his murder weapon in hand.

For some commentators, the question now is whether a new focus on background checks and the FBI’s admission that it flubbed Roof’s application will affect public opinion over gun controls in an era where a recent government study found that the number of active shooter incidents rose from an average of 6.4 situations a year in 2007 to an average of 16.4 incidents in 2013.

The role of the government in preventing such tragedies is at the heart of the debate, which is deeply intertwined with America’s long-running and complicated relationship with firearms ownership as guaranteed by the US Constitution.

At the same time, the “revving up of presidential campaigns for 2016 [have] increased the hostility” around the gun control debate, writes Aileen Graef for Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 162 TV stations in the US.

After a comprehensive gun safety bill failed to pass Congress following the Sandy Hook school massacre in late 2012, support for new gun controls has waned. Polls show only 47 percent of Americans now favoring stricter gun controls. There's other evidence that the US public has little appetite for new gun strictures. After all, 90 percent of NRA-backed candidates won their races in Election 2014.

And while the Charleston massacre forced South Carolina to reconsider its sanctioning of the Confederate battle flag, which Roof had posed with in photos and which the legislature voted to take down this week, there has been no parallel push to limit gun rights, especially given that largely gun-friendly Republicans control both chambers in Congress.

Nevertheless, after the Charleston shootings, Obama urged Americans to not accept the kind of mass killings that rarely happen in other countries as “the new normal.”

But pro-gun advocates jumped on the FBI’s admission of failure to find Roof’s arrest record, seeing it as proof that existing laws are sufficient for safety, at least as long as the government does its job.

“Govt fails to perform basic task. The answer is to further limit the rights of law abiding Americans,” Kurt Schlichter, author of “Conservative Insurgency,” wrote sarcastically on Twitter.

For their part, gun control advocates didn’t waver in their continuing push to expand background checks to private purchases, instead blaming Congressional constrictions – including the three-day limit on holding up a gun purchase – for putting the gun in Roof’s hand.

“Though it is impossible to know whether Roof would have obtained a gun through different means if he’d been prevented from making this particular purchase, it is possible that the nine people allegedly killed by Roof would be alive today if the examiner had been able to prevent the sale from happening until after she’d completed Roof’s background check,” writes Ian Millhiser on Think Progress. “Instead, because the current legal standard prioritizes speed over completed background checks, Roof was able to obtain the gun he attempted to purchase on April 11.”

Moreover, background checks, despite mistakes, are on the whole “incredibly effective,” argued Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, noting in a statement that such checks “have saved lives by blocking more than 2.4 million gun sales – more than 350 every day – to people we all agree shouldn’t have them, like domestic abusers, felons, and other dangerous people.”

Last year, the FBI processed over 8 million background checks, of which 228,000 were unresolved within three days.

Such paperwork problems underscore, at least to gun rights advocates, that the federal background check system has been an “utter failure,” especially since most armed criminals acquire their guns on the black market, Gun Owners of America spokesman Erich Pratt told the Washington Times.

“Arguing that we can make background checks better to stop criminals from getting guns is the very definition of insanity,” he said

Nevertheless, the FBI began an immediate 30-day review of how the agency sifts through the biographies of aspiring gun owners. Officials hope that the probe will at least reveal ways to improve the existing background check system, which, given the political stalemate on new gun control laws, may end up as the Charleston massacre’s most significant contribution to national gun safety.

“This case rips all of our hearts out,” Comey, the FBI director, told reporters. “The thought that an error on our part is connected to this guy’s purchase of a gun that is used to slaughter these good people is very painful to us.”

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