TAR HEEL VIEW: Background check failure had deadly outcome

Perhaps nothing in life is more frustrating than those occasions when checks put into place to avoid tragedies happen anyway.

That lesson came home again late last week when it was reported that Dylann Roof, the man charged with the ruthless slaughter of nine people in a Charleston, S.C. church, should have failed his federal gun background check.

FBI director James Comey acknowledged that it was a mistake on multiple levels that led to Roof being allowed to buy the .45-caliber Glock pistol he is accused of using to kill nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

This is agitating beyond belief. In a society where guns are readily available illegally, Roof was allowed to purchase one by legal means even though by federal regulations the 21-year-old should have been blocked from doing so. Such systemic failures make it hard to seek stricter gun control when authorities can’t even competently administer the rules in place at the moment.

And as inspiring and overdue as America’s reassessment of the Confederate battle flag has been since last month’s Charleston shootings, those who wish to truly honor the victims need to set their sights on higher priority issues — Fixing an obviously broken system of background checks, finding ways to identify and help those with mental health issues and developing frank discussions about race in our nation.

Just as the Confederate flag never deserved a place on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, that handgun shouldn’t have been put in the hands of Roof, who had admitted to felony drug possession charges. He should have failed the National Instant Background Check System after he first sought to buy the gun on April 11 because he had acknowledged illegal drug possession after an arrest earlier this year, which under the NICS law is treated as a conviction.

But that purchase wasn’t halted. Comey says there was some confusion in the background screening. The wrong police department was contacted so the screener (in another state) never knew the full details of the purchaser’s arrests within the FBI’s allotted three-day time period. Although the investigation was still classified as “delayed-pending,” the gun store, Shooter’s Choice, was within its legal right to sell the weapon to Roof on April 16.

As we mentioned earlier, denying Roof a legal handgun purchase might not have halted the racially motivated slayings. Guns are available by illegal means for anyone with serious interest. But being denied the permit would’ve made the purchase more difficult and such a roadblock might have been enough to deter someone as confused as Roof or created enough time for someone, anyone, to notice his mental unbalance and have something done about it.

That is something that should outrage all Americans, black or white, gun owner or non-owner. Polls show voters overwhelmingly support a background check system that prevents serious criminals and the dangerously mentally ill from owning firearms. Yet the NICS isn’t getting the job done — failing about 228,000 times per year based on the latest FBI numbers.

As troubling as the Confederate flag may be as a symbol of racism and oppression, a gun in the hands of a criminal or a dangerous psychotic poses an imminent danger that must be addressed, not overlooked. Fixing the background check is no assault on Second Amendment rights. Rather, it would be a case of making existing law, one that’s been on the books for 22 years, function in the way that Congress intended.

And qualified gun owners would have nothing to fear as they’d face no additional burden while gaining the comfort that terrible armed rampages like the one that took place in South Carolina might be made less frequent.

The Times-News of Burlington/Tribune News Service