An appeals panel said government negligence doesn’t except it from a lawsuit.
A federal court has reinstated a lawsuit filed by victims of a 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Victims and their family members claim that a faulty background check let Dylann Roof purchase a firearm, which he used to kill nine people at a Sunday church service.
The decision, made by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, reverses a lower court’s dismissal.
In the lower court ruling, a judge found the victims’ claims didn’t meet federal exceptions to liability. However, the appeals panel disagreed.
According to The Associated Press, the Federal Bureau of Investigation admitted that Roof shouldn’t been allowed to purchase a firearm. Weeks before the shooting, he’d been arrested for drug possession in Columbia, South Carolina. Then-FBI Director James Comey even issued a statement saying as much.
“Dylann Roff, the alleged killer of so many innocent people at the Emanuel AME church, should not have been allowed to purchase the gun he allegedly use that evening,” Comey said.
And that’s because a National Instant Criminal Background Check System examiner may have broken protocol by not following up on Roof’s arrest, which had been erroneously attributed to the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office.
While performing the NICS check, the examiner was purportedly informed by Lexington County that it didn’t have a record of Roof’s arrest. The sheriff’s office then directed her to follow up with Columbia Police.
PBS reports that the examiner mistakenly contacted the West Columbia Police Department. Unable to retrieve any information about Roof’s arrest, the official apparently gave up and took no further action.
Roof was able to return to the firearms dealer three days later, following the completion of a mandatory waiting period for handgun sales, and purchase the weapon without incident.
“Once the Examiner’s inquiry revealed that the Columbia P.D. was the arresting agency and that it had the report, she was required to contact it,” Judge Roger Gregory wrote on behalf of the 4th Circuit on Friday. “Her decision not to do so involved no permissible exercise of discretion.”
“The government,” Gregory concluded, “can claim no immunity in these circumstances.”
Attorney William Wilkins, who’s representing victims and their families, said the ruling means the government must take its background-check obligations seriously when it comes to firearms purchases.
“We’re talking about those that are charged with the important responsibility of properly conducting background checks so that assassins like Roof are not able to obtain the weapon that he used to commit these terrible crimes,” Wilkins said.