Most people agree that mandatory background checks prior to firearm purchases are a good thing. But that's assuming they work.
Two months before he massacred nine people in a Charleston church, Dylann Roof purchased the .45-caliber Glock pistol he used in the shooting from a gun store. The gun store ran the required federal background check, and sold him the gun after receiving no response for three days.
As it turned out, Roof had been arrested six weeks earlier on a felony drug charge that should've disqualified him from legally possessing a firearm. Victims' families sued the federal government for failing to uncover the arrest, and after a lower court initially dismissed the claims, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal government could be liable for failing to adequately process gun background checks.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act created the federal background check system. But it also provides the government immunity in some situations if weapons fall into the wrong hands. Last year, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, blasted the FBI's handling of Roof's background check, but ruled the immunity under the Brady Act prevented any legal claims from the victims' families.
But last week a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit disagreed, finding the immunity only protects the actions of individual federal employees -- not the government as a whole:
The district court's analysis appears to rest on the faulty reasoning that because the Government can assert any defenses of individual federal employees, and because employees like the NICS Examiner can claim immunity under this statute, the Government likewise enjoys immunity under the statute. That the Government in FTCA cases may assert defenses available to individual agents does not mean that the Government can claim the federal statutory immunity in the Brady Act that Congress specifically granted only to federal employees. In sum, the statutory text is clear: federal employees, but not the Federal Government, enjoy immunity from suit.
Therefore, the case will go back to the district court, pending any further government appeals.
This is not the first time the federal gun background check process has come under fire. After Devin Kelley gunned down 26 people in a church in Texas in 2017, the Air Force admitted it never reported his court-martial for domestic violence to the National Criminal Information Center database, a conviction that would have never allowed him to purchase the AR-15 military-style rifle he used in the shooting.
In this case, Roof's arrest was reported, albeit haphazardly and inaccurately. And the government may be liable for failing to find the charges, confirm the details, and block the firearm sale as it should have.
"The families are one step closer to closure," William Wilkins, lead attorney for the survivors and victims' families, told BuzzFeed News after the ruling. "What this case said was that the government by law is tasked with developing and implementing and maintaining a system that identifies individuals who by law are not entitled to possess a weapon ... every case is tied to the facts, but this case says that the government is not immune from discharging its responsibilities."