A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the families of nine people shot to death in a Black South Carolina church in 2015 can sue the U.S. government for negligence.
Convicted gunman Dylann Roof, who had been arrested on a drug charge, “should not have been allowed to purchase the gun he allegedly used that evening,” James Comey, who was FBI director at the time, said of the June 17 shooting.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Comey and overturned a lower court’s ruling that protected the government from liability under two federal laws, according to CNN.
Roof, a white supremacist, was attending a Bible study meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston when he opened fire on the church.
Roof was convicted of murder and hate crime charges and sentenced to death in January 2017.
In the year that followed, a South Carolina judge blasted the Federal Bureau of Investigation over what it called a series of “abysmally poor policy choices” that allowed Roof to purchase the gun he used in the deadly shooting.
Comey said Roof was only able to purchase the Glock 41 semiautomatic pistol he used because of lapses in the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
An NICS examiner who conducted a background check on Roof failed to follow a mandatory procedure when she did not contact police in Columbia about his drug arrest weeks earlier.
“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.
He added, “The government can claim no immunity in these circumstances.”
If the background check had been performed properly, “no one disputes” it would have kept him from buying the gun, the appeals court wrote.