A lawsuit over a faulty background check that allowed a South Carolina man to buy the gun he used to kill nine people in a racist attack at a Charleston church was reinstated Friday by a federal appeals court.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a ruling from a lower court judge who threw out the claims brought by relatives of people killed by Dylann Roof in the 2015 massacre, and by survivors.
The lower court judge found the government immune from liability. The judge said the families’ claims did not fit into narrow exceptions to laws that shield government employees from liability while carrying out their official duties. But the appeals court panel disagreed.
The FBI has acknowledged that Roof’s drug possession arrest in Columbia, South Carolina, weeks before the shooting at AME Emanuel Church should have prevented him from buying a gun. Roof has been sentenced to death for the slayings.
The 4th Circuit panel found that an examiner who conducted the background check on Roof failed to follow a mandatory procedure when she did not contact the arresting agency.
“Once the Examiner’s inquiry revealed that the Columbia PD was the arresting agency and that it had the report, she was required to contact it. Her decision not to do so involved no permissible exercise of discretion,” Judge Roger Gregory wrote for the federal panel in Friday’s ruling.
“The Government can claim no immunity in these circumstances,” he wrote.
The ruling means the lawsuit can move forward.
William “Billy” Wilkins, a lawyer who represented the families in their appeal, said the ruling signals recognition under the law that the government must live up to its responsibility to conduct thorough background checks for gun buyers.
“We’re talking about those who 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,” he said.
A series of clerical errors and missteps allowed Roof to buy the handgun he later used in the massacre.
In his ruling last year, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel sharply said a jail clerk wrongly listed the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office as the arresting agency in the drug case. The examiner then sent a fax to the sheriff’s office, which responded that it did not have the arrest report and directed her to Columbia police.
Gergel said that under the system’s operating procedures, the examiner was directed to a federal listing of law enforcement agencies, but Columbia police did not appear on the list. After trying the separate West Columbia Police Department and being told it was the wrong agency, the examiner did nothing more.
After a three-day waiting period, Roof went back to a West Columbia store to pick up the handgun.
The appeals court panel said the examiner was mandated to contact the Columbia Police Department.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the ruling.
During arguments before the 4th Circuit in May, Thomas Ward, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s Civil Division, told the judges that the standard operating procedures are not binding. He said they are meant only as guidance for examiners who process about 22,000 inquiries per day and about 8.2 million a year.
The appeals court, however, said the National Instant Criminal Background Check System’s standard operating procedures contain a set of requirements specifying the steps an examiner must take in conducting a background check.
South Carolina state Sen. Gerald Malloy, one of the attorneys representing the family of Pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of those killed in the shooting, said he believes the ruling means “that the United States government has some responsibility.”
“At the end of the day, the bottom line is, had they followed their own procedures, then Mr. Roof would not have been able to purchase this gun and we would have been able to save nine innocent lives and the injury to the other victims,” Malloy said.