Jason Miczek / Reuters
The FBI has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought by the survivors and family members of victims of the Charleston church shooting claiming that cracks in the bureau’s gun buyer background check system allowed Dylann Roof to purchase the weapon he used to kill nine people.
The lawsuit claims that the FBI’s decision to delay Roof’s purchase of the gun but failure to ultimately deny the sale was negligent and violated the government’s duty – ultimately making the US government accountable for the victims' deaths on June 17, 2015.
However, the FBI argues in its motion to have the lawsuit thrown out that current policy only authorizes its agents to block the sale for three days. After that time has elapsed, the FBI has “no authority” to block the sale if it has not “found definitive information” that selling the gun to the individual would violate federal or state law, according to the motion reads.
On April 11, 2015, Roof attempted to purchase a handgun from Shooter’s Choice gun store in West Columbia, South Carolina. A background check was initiated by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), revealing an arrest record for Roof in Lexington County, South Carolina. The FBI decided to delay the sale and investigate further. A NICS agent contacted local authorities but received no further information on Roof’s arrest. After the three-day waiting period expired without further follow-up by the FBI, the sale of the gun went through.
After the shooting, an internal FBI investigation revealed that Roof was arrested at the Columbiana Mall in Columbia, South Carolina on February 28, 2015, and confessed to an illegal drug possession charge for a bottle of Suboxone he had on him. Suboxone is a prescription medication used to treat opioid addiction.
The incident where Roof admitted to illegal drug possession would have been enough to block the sale of the gun, however, the FBI later admitted that because of confusion about the jurisdictional breakdown of the area, the Columbia Police Department, who arrested Roof, were not contacted when the FBI probed his record in Lexington County.
Despite the fact that the FBI failed to contact the correct police department to obtain the arrest report, the agency argues in its motion that exceptions to the Federal Torts Claim Act — the law established in 1946 that allows people to hold the US government liable for certain acts committed by persons acting on behalf of the federal government — prevent the families from suing the feds because they failed to allow Roof to purchase the gun.
According to the FBI, the FTCA allows the bureau to exercise a “discretionary function exception” when deciding to how it conducts background checks. Essentially, they are arguing the Roof’s victims’ and their families cannot sue because they don’t agree with NICS policy or the design of its system.
Additionally, the FBI argues that the plaintiffs’ claim that the NICS failed to communicate information about Roof to Shooter’s Choice or communicated wrong information to the store is barred because it misrepresents what the FBI did in this case. To that end, the FBI says that based on the evidence that was available to NICS at the time the right procedure was to delay the purchase for three days while it investigated Roof, but not ultimately deny the sale.
“The shooting at the Emanuel AME Church was an atrocity of unspeakable proportions. The perpetrator’s actions were despicable,” the FBI writes in its motion to dismiss. “But the United States is not liable…for this tragic shooting.”
Roof is currently scheduled to stand trial later this year in federal court for the deaths of the nine people killed at Emanuel AME, and also faces an additional 33 federal hate crime charges. Jury selection in the case is set to resume next month in Charleston.