WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The suspect in the killings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, was able to buy a gun because of mistakes in a background check that should have revealed an admission of drug possession, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey said on Friday.
The examiner of suspect Dylann Roof’s federal background check did not see a police report in which Roof admitted to drug possession, which would have barred him from buying the weapon, Comey told reporters at a briefing.
Comey said he had ordered a full review. “We are sick that this has happened. We wish we could turn back time,” he said, adding that FBI agents were meeting with victims’ families to share the news and that the examiner involved was “heartbroken.”
Roof, a 21-year-old white man who appeared on a website with a racist manifesto, is charged in the June 17 shootings at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where the nine were gunned down during a Bible-study session.
He has been charged with their murders and three counts of attempted murder.
The FBI runs federal background checks for gun dealers in about 30 states, including South Carolina. If the agency does not report back to the retailer with a yes or no decision in three business days, U.S. law allows a gun to be sold.
An examiner typically reviews at least 10 cases a day, the FBI said.
According to Comey, on April 13, two days after Roof tried to purchase a gun, a background check examiner ran his criminal history, which brought up a felony drug charge and wrongly listed the arresting agency as Lexington County Sheriff’s Office.
Had the examiner known that the actual arresting agency was the Columbia Police Department, which detained Roof in February for behaving erratically at a local mall, she would have known that Roof had admitted to drug possession and barred the sale.
A drug charge does not stop an individual from buying a gun, but Roof’s admission, contained in the Columbia Police Department’s arrest report, would have.
The examiner contacted the Lexington sheriff’s office for more information, which told her it was not its case. Lexington County prosecutors’ office did not respond to a similar request.
Another incorrect FBI file directed her to a second wrong police department, West Columbia Police Department, which also told her it had no record of the case.
Roof’s case was then labeled “delayed/pending” and the gun, a .45-caliber pistol, was sold to him on April 16, three days after the FBI began to process a background check.
Reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, James Dalgleish and Steve Orlofsky