Fourth Circuit Revives Charleston Church Shooting Liability Case

(CN) – The Fourth Circuit Friday gave families of victims of the 2015 Charleston church shooting a second chance to challenge U.S. gun regulations, reversing a lower court’s decision that had found the government immune from the claims. 

John Johnson pays his respects at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on Jan. 3, 2017. (Michael Pronzato/The Post And Courier via AP)

Survivors and families of the victims of the attack perpetrated by Dylann Roof filed lawsuits against the U.S., alleging the government is liable for failing to prevent the murderer from purchasing the firearm he used to kill nine people during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. 

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which laid out the federal background check system, gives the U.S. government immunity in many scenarios when it fails to prevent weapon sales to the wrong people. With this act in mind, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel dismissed the consolidated cases.

A three-judge panel in Richmond, Virginia, on Friday sent the case back to the district court for further consideration, finding that the Brady Act does not shield the federal government from liability. 

Roof tried to purchase a semiautomatic pistol from a federally licensed firearms dealer in West Columbia, South Carolina, on April 11, 2015.

Before selling any weapons to Roof, the gun dealer followed protocol by contacting the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) by telephone. 

According to court documents, the seller’s goal was to determine whether it was legal to sell the gun to Roof. 

The NICS representative who fielded the inquiry searched three databases for any information on Roof, according to the Fourth Circuit opinion. 

While the majority of the background-check databases yielded no relevant information, one returned a record indicating that Roof was arrested just six weeks earlier on a felony cocaine charge, and that the arresting agency was the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office. That was incorrect information.

Upon further investigation, it was discovered that Roof had been arrested not on a felony cocaine charge, but on a misdemeanor charge for simple possession of a Schedule III controlled substance. 

Additionally, investigators found that Roof was actually arrested by the Columbia Police Department and not by the county sheriff. 

“This misidentification was a product of the fact that Roof was arrested in a part of Columbia, South Carolina, that falls in Lexington County,” testimony within the opinion states. “This error was especially consequential because it caused NICS to believe mistakenly that the documents associated with Roof’s arrest would be found with the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office rather than the Columbia PD.”

Because the record of Roof’s arrest alone was not enough to establish that he was disqualified from possessing a firearm, the examiner tried to obtain a copy of the incident report underlying the arrest. 

Nobody responded until later that afternoon, when the Lexington County Sheriff’s office responded that the examiner should check in with the Columbia Police Department. 

The examiner did not follow these instructions, according to the Fourth Circuit opinion. 

Instead, she reviewed the list of law enforcement agencies in the Lexington County section of a state contact list and found the West Columbia Police Department, which notified the examiner that it never had the warrant for Roof’s drug-related arrest. 

“At this time, the Examiner knew the West Columbia PD was not the arresting agency,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Gregory, writing for the panel. “She had the name of the actual arresting agency – the Columbia PD – in front of her and she had almost two full days left to contact the agency to obtain the Roof incident report, a report that no one disputes would have resulted in a denial of the firearm transaction.”

Three days after Roof requested the pistol, with no solid response from higher authorities, the dealer legally sold him the weapon. 

The district court ruled that the examiner did not breach any laws or agency policies, but the Fourth Circuit disagreed, contending that the examiner should have acted on the information she had about Roof’s arrest history. 

“Her decision not to do so involved no permissible exercise of discretion,” Gregory wrote.

The examiner who allowed the dealer to sell the deadly pistol to Roof, could have easily found his records in the FBI’s National Data Exchange database, according to the court. The U.S. government chose not to grant NICS Examiners access to that database, according to Friday’s opinion.

However, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court’s conclusion that the government cannot be held liable for declining to give examiners access to that database.

The court ruled that the government as a whole is not excused from being a defendant in the case and remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings.

Circuit Judge Albert Diaz, an Obama appointee, joined Gregory’s opinion, while Circuit Judge G. Steven Agee, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote a separate opinion concurring and dissenting in part.  

President Bill Clinton installed Gregory via a recess appointment, and he was renominated by President George W. Bush. 

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