South Carolina gun dealers rely on federal background checks that would not have stopped Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof from buying a handgun, despite a pending drug case against him, according to law enforcement.
The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, disqualifies gun buyers for any of 10 reasons, including being ruled mentally incompetent by a court, being under indictment for a crime punishable by a year or more in prison or illegally using controlled substances.
Roof, 21, was arrested March 2 in Lexington County, S.C., on a misdemeanor drug possession charge, records show. The next month, according to CNN, he bought a .45-caliber Glock handgun from a Charleston gun shop. Investigators have not publicly discussed how Roof is believed to have acquired a gun.
“An arrest itself is not a disqualifier,” said Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association. “It has to be a conviction in order to prohibit a purchase.”
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Roof’s drug case had not gone to court before his arrest Thursday in Shelby after the shooting of nine people in a Charleston church.
The massacre Wednesday night renewed the debate over gun control in a nation where mass killings are no longer unusual.
South Carolina’s laws don’t require buyers to get permits to buy handguns or rifles. In 2012, the state repealed pistol regulations that required gun dealers to have state permits.
Licensed dealers instead submit buyers’ applications to NICS, which Bruder said includes local law enforcement records.
David Chipman, a retired, 25-year agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said some states and local police agencies send their crime data immediately to NICS. Others do it sparingly.
“NICS relies on individual states and local police to push that kind of data from the courts or sheriff’s departments into the system,” said Chipman, who lives near Washington, D.C. “And that varies widely based on the practices of the individual departments.
“The smaller the town, the worse the records. That’s the reality of it.”
Michael Riley, a spokesman for the FBI, said a single arrest would not disqualify an individual from purchasing a gun. Reporting to NICS is voluntary, he said, and there’s no way of knowing what percentage of arrests are included in the data system.
A 2010 survey by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence found that only 12 states reported 80 percent or more of felony convictions to NICS. The San Francisco nonprofit rates South Carolina’s gun laws an “F.”
“I don’t know if it would have made a difference in this instance, but in general when a state relies on NICS they’re not getting the full picture,” said staff attorney Mike McLively. “State databases include arrest records, mental health records. You’re checking a wider range of sources.”
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican presidential candidate, said Friday that the system needs work.
“I own a bunch of guns, and I haven’t hurt anybody. But there is something wrong with the background system,” Graham told the Washington Post. “... There’s probably a million people who have been adjudicated by a court to be mentally unstable whose records are not in the national background system.”
More licensed dealers
South Carolina had the nation’s largest increase in licensed firearms dealers from 2005 to 2013, according to an Observer analysis of federal data. Federally licensed dealers increased 33 percent during that time, from about 560 to nearly 740.
It’s illegal in South Carolina to sell handguns to a buyer who is under 18, has been convicted of a violent crime, is a “habitual drunkard” or drug addict, has been judged mentally incompetent or belongs to a subversive organization.
“There’s not going to be any skeletons in the closet if they approve it,” said Gerald Stoudemire, a Newberry County gun dealer and president of Gun Owners of South Carolina, a National Rifle Association affiliate.
“If you had a parking ticket, it’s not going to affect you. But if you got in a barroom fight, it will.”
An estimated 40 percent of all firearms are sold in the United State by unlicensed sellers who aren’t required to do background checks on buyers or keep records.
S.C. Sen. Kevin Bryant, a Republican from Anderson, co-sponsored a bill that would eliminate the requirement for a concealed carry permit in South Carolina.
The bill remains in committee, but Bryant said Friday the shooting hasn’t changed his opinion.
“The problem is hatred,” he said. “And the champion of the love of Christ was (shooting victim Sen.) Clem Pinckney and I’m just saddened that we won’t have him anymore.
“The root problem is not a weapon. The root problem is hatred from one human being to another, and government is limited as to what it can do there.”
N.C. requires purchase permits
Unlike South Carolina, North Carolina requires that handgun buyers obtain purchase permits from county sheriffs.
Beyond the NICS check that states like South Carolina conduct, North Carolina sheriffs consider an applicant’s “good moral character” in deciding whether to award pistol purchase permits, said Eddie Caldwell, vice president and general counsel of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association. That means they consider factors such as pending criminal cases.
This month the N.C. House turned back an effort to repeal the current pistol permit system.
Paul Valone, president of the pro-gun group Grass Roots North Carolina, said the problem in Charleston wasn’t the gun but the shooter.
“What we see yet again is an example of what we have seen with other mass homicides,” he said. “We see yet another sociopath drawn to a victim disarmament zone. With the exception of two mass homicides in the United States, all have taken place where guns are supposedly prohibited.”
Staff writers Erin Bacon and Langston Taylor contributed.