WASHINGTON (PM) — Survivors and family members of victims of the July 2015 mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, can sue the federal government over breakdowns in the national background check system that enabled the shooter to purchase a gun, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
A lower court judge earlier had rejected the case, finding the government was protected from the claims raised by the Charleston survivors and victims’ families. The US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit decided that the judge was wrong, and resurrected the case Friday.
The 4th Circuit’s decision — which the government could still challenge — reestablishes one possible avenue for survivors and victims’ families to take the federal government to court over its role in managing a national background check system meant to prevent people from getting guns who aren’t allowed to under state or federal law.
Quickly after the Charleston shooting, which killed nine people, then-FBI director James Comey issued a statement describing defects in the federal background check process that made it attainable for the shooter, Dylann Roof, to purchase a handgun used in the shooting. A jury found Roof guilty on every charge in December 2016 and sentenced him to death; Roof is contesting his conviction before the 4th Circuit.
“Dylann Roof, the alleged killer of so many innocent people at the Emanuel AME church, should not have been allowed to purchase the gun he allegedly used that evening,” Comey stated at the time, an admittance the 4th Circuit entered in the introduction to Friday’s opinion.
Under federal law, anyone convicted of a felony or who has illegally used drugs is prohibited from purchasing or owning a firearm. Federally licensed firearm dealers are legally required to run pending gun purchases through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, which is run by the FBI, to make sure the transaction doesn’t infringe any federal or state laws.
The three-judge appeals panel unanimously ruled that the government wasn’t immune under the Brady Act. Judge G. Steven Agee split with his two colleagues on the Federal Tort Claims Act issue, writing in a separate opinion that he believed the government was immune from claims under that law.
The Justice Department could petition the full 4th Circuit to reconsider the case, or ask the US Supreme Court to take up the case.