IT IS STOMACH-CHURNING awful to imagine that the nine precious souls who were slaughtered at Emanuel A.M.E. Church might still be alive but for a string of errors by police trying to figure out whether the gunman could legally purchase the murder weapon — and the law that allowed it to be sold before their questions were answered.
We can never know what would have happened if the FBI had found out about Dylann Roof’s drug charge in time to deny his purchase: Perhaps he would have gotten someone else to buy a gun, or perhaps he would have given up. But we do know that he’s not the only person who has been able to purchase a gun even though federal law prohibited it.
So the question shouldn’t be what would have happened if the background-check system had worked in this case, but rather what we can do to make it work more often.
One thing we can do is insist that police be more careful in handling arrest records; the problem in this case traces to a jail officer who entered the wrong arresting agency when Mr. Roof was brought in Feb. 28 on drug charges. That led to an FBI official calling the wrong police department because of the confusing county lines and city names we have in the Midlands. Before she could get a straight answer about Mr. Roof’s criminal history, an arbitrary three-day window closed.
Many large retailers won’t sell guns until they get an OK from the FBI, but that’s their choice after three days, and the store where Mr. Roof went shopping chose to sell.
Lexington Sheriff Jay Koon says he has changed his booking procedures to prevent such mistakes in the future, and the FBI is conducting an investigation to see if it needs to make any changes.
How the background check was botched.
But the whole sickening mess begs the question: Does it make sense to allow a gun purchase before the FBI has determined whether the purchaser can legally buy the gun? The list of people who can’t is short: convicted felons, fugitives, illegal drug users, people convicted of domestic violence and people who are judged mentally ill.
And even if there is some deadline — to satisfy the paranoid types who are convinced there is a great conspiracy to strip them of their guns — does it make sense to set it at just three days? Particularly since it apparently is not uncommon for local police to ignore FBI inquiries if they’re busy? Why not five days? Or a week? Or a month?
Columbia’s U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn has proposed federal legislation to delay the purchases until the FBI check is complete. And here in South Carolina, Rep. Beth Bernstein plans to introduce a bill to require S.C. gun dealers to wait until the check is complete. A federal law makes sense because federal law mandates the background checks. But since it was local officials in South Carolina who caused this monumental failure, our state should act if the Congress does not.
The Greenville News reports that the FBI completes 91 percent of the checks instantly. Last year, it completed all but 228,000 of its 8.2 million background checks within three days. What that means is that allowing the FBI to finish the checks before guns are sold would slow down fewer than 3 percent of gun purchases.
Some people blame the federal government for failing to enforce the law, but in this case was a Lexington County Sheriff’s Department employee who entered the wrong data, slowing down the FBI background check, and the Lexington solicitor’s office that didn’t respond to an FBI inquiry.
Last year, federal agents had to retrieve 2,511 of the guns that were sold after the three-day window closed, because the check ultimately determined that the purchaser was barred from buying a gun.
What that means is that allowing the FBI to finish the checks before guns are sold would at least slow down, and perhaps even stop, Dylann Roof, and the shooter in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, and countless other less-spectacular killers. That hardly sounds like an unreasonable trade-off. And it certainly doesn’t sound like a gun grab — not when more than 97 percent of would-be gun purchasers would see no delay at all.