WASHINGTON (AP) – The gunman charged in the Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre should not have been allowed to purchase the weapon used in the attack, FBI Director James Comey said Friday as he outlined a series of “heartbreaking” missed opportunities and flawed paperwork that allowed the transaction to take place.
“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.”
He said he had ordered a review of what happened and that FBI officials would be meeting Friday with victims’ relatives.
The cascading set of problems began with the drug-related arrest of Dylann Roof in South Carolina weeks before the shooting. During that arrest, police say he admitted to possessing illegal drugs.
Under federal rules, that admission alone would have been enough to immediately disqualify him from an April gun purchase even though he wasn’t convicted of the charge. But, Comey said, 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 South Carolina criminal history records that she reviewed.
Had the West Virginia-based examiner seen the 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 used its legal discretion to allow the sale to be completed.
“It may be a series of a highly improbable events coming together, but this was a gun that was used to murder nine good people. So it’s very important to me that we understand what we can learn from this,” Comey said.
Comey said he learned about the problem on Thursday night and had directed an internal 30-day review into the situation and the FBI’s background check process more generally. The Justice Department’s inspector general had already been exploring the same issue.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, condemned the errors.
“It’s disastrous that this bureaucratic mistake prevented existing laws from working and blocking an illegal gun sale,” Grassley said. “The facts undercut attempts to use the tragedy to enact unnecessary gun laws. The American people, and especially the victims’ families, deserve better.”
The problem unfolded like this:
Roof went to buy the .45-caliber pistol on April 11 from a licensed firearms dealer, Shooter’s Choice, in West Columbia, South Carolina.
The background check examiner assigned to Roof’s case identified through South Carolina records an arrest on a drug charge. But the arresting agency that was listed, for reasons Comey said were unclear, was the Lexington County sheriff’s office. The actual arresting agency was the Columbia police department. Had she reached that police force, she would have seen the arrest report in which Roof admitted having the drug Suboxone, which is used to treat opiate addiction, Comey said.
Instead, she followed up with the county sheriff’s office and the county prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor never responded, and the county sheriff suggested that she check with the Columbia police force.
The FBI’s confusion was further compounded by local geography.
The background examiner knew the arrest took place in Lexington County, but when she consulted her list of county police agencies, she did not see the Columbia police force. That department was listed in Richland County – where most of the city is located.
That list, or contact sheet, in retrospect should have identified both counties as home to the city of Columbia.
When she did not see Columbia on her list, she selected what she thought was the most reasonable alternative – West Columbia, where the gun shop was located – but the police department there also said it had no record of Roof’s arrest.
Before she could track down the police report, the three day window lapsed and the transaction went through on April 16.
Comey’s announcement came within hours of the Confederate flag’s removal from the South Carolina Statehouse. Families of the victims attended the ceremony.