Charleston shooting

Obama Wonders If Dylann Roof, Who Passed a Background Check, Could Have Been Stopped by a Background Check

Why "common-sense gun safety reforms" would not have "prevented what happened in Charleston."

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"If Congress had passed some common-sense gun safety reforms after Newtown," President Obama said during a visit to San Francisco on Friday, "we don't know if it would have prevented what happened in Charleston." Actually, we do know: Had the bill to which Obama was referring been enacted, it would not have done anything to prevent Dylann Roof from murdering nine people at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday night. But as is usually the case with the policies that gun controllers push in response to horrendous crimes like this one, logic is optional.

Obama was talking about legislation proposed following the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut—in particular, "reforms that 90 percent of the American people supported," meaning expansion of the background check requirement for gun buyers to include sales that do not involve federally licensed dealers. But as CNN reported the day of Obama's remarks, Roof bought the .45-caliber Glock Model 41 handgun he used in the church attack from a Charleston gun store in April, shortly after his 21st birthday (which was on April 3), with money his father had given him as a present. That means he passed a background check.

Whether Roof should have passed a background check is a matter of some dispute, but it looks like he did not have a disqualifying criminal or psychiatric record. Roof was arrested at a mall in Columbia, South Carolina, on March 2 February 28 [see below] and charged with illegal possession of Suboxone, a Schedule III combination of the narcotic buprenorphine and the opioid antagonist naloxone (legally used to treat opioid addicts). According to a story The New York Times ran on Thursday, the drug charge was a felony. But according to subsequent reports from the Associated Press and The Charlotte Observer, the charge was a misdemeanor.

The difference is important under the Gun Control Act of 1968, which bans firearm sales to someone who "is under indictment for, or has been convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" (i.e., a felony). Based on the Times report, The Washington Post's Jeff Guo claimed (as J.D. Tuccille noted here on Friday) that "because of his criminal record, Roof would not have been able to buy a gun from a store." Clearly that's not true, since Roof did buy a gun from a store. And if A.P. and the Observer are right that Roof was charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony, his drug arrest would not have barred him from buying a gun, even assuming that the information would have made its way into the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) in the month or so between the arrest and the purchase.

If Roof was a nonmedical user of Suboxone, that fact would have legally disqualified him from buying a gun, since the Gun Control Act excludes anyone who is "an unlawful user" of a controlled substance. But a gun dealer would have had no way of knowing about Roof's tastes in psychoactive chemicals, because NICS does not track people's drug habits—a good thing, since otherwise anyone who has recently consumed cannabis (even in states where it's legal) or used someone else's prescription medication would be stripped of the right to own guns in practice as well as theory. Nor did the "common-sense gun safety reforms" Obama wishes Congress had passed include such a national database of drug users, the creation of which would face enormous practical difficulties, not to mention the wholesale violation of privacy it would entail.

In short, "universal background checks" make no sense as a response to the Charleston shootings, contrary to what Obama and Martin O'Malley seem to think. Then again, universal background checks made no sense as a response to the Sandy Hook massacre, the perpetrator of which, Adam Lanza, used a rifle legally purchased by his mother and in any case did not have the sort of criminal or psychiatric record that would have legally barred him from buying a gun on his own. Such emotional appeals do not have much staying power, not because people forget about the horrors perpetrated by the likes of Roof and Lanza, but because the proposed solutions are non sequiturs that cannot withstand a moment's reflection.

Addendum: Yesterday The State, Columbia's daily paper, reported that, "according to an arrest warrant reviewed by The State," the drug charge against Roof was indeed a misdemeanor, so it looks like the Times (and therefore the Post) got that important detail wrong. The State also says Roof was arrested on February 28, not March 2, the date given by the Observer.