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 to an even higher purpose. Late last week, FBI director James Comey acknowledged that alleged shooter Dylann Roof should have failed his federal gun background check and not been allowed to buy the .45-caliber Glock pistol he is accused of using to kill nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Just as the Confederate flag never deserved a place on the South Carolina State House grounds, that handgun shouldn't have been put in the hands of a 21-year-old who had admitted to felony drug possession charges. Mr. Roof 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. Why? Mr. Comey says there was some confusion in the background screening. The wrong police department was contacted (West Columbia instead of Columbia) so the screener (who was located in Clarksburg, W. Va. and not South Carolina) 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 Mr. Roof on April 16.
Might the shooting have taken place anyway? It's entirely possible given the number of guns in circulation in this country, but it clearly would have been more difficult — and that roadblock might have been enough in this case. This is hardly the first time that the NICS has proven itself inadequate since it was created by the Brady Act in 1993. The screening rarely denies a firearm transaction, yet hundreds of thousands of cases fall into a similar trap.
That is something that should outrage all Americans, black or white, gun owner or non-owner. Polls show voters overwhelming 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. And that's not even counting the sales from private sellers to private buyers (including those conducted in conjunction with gun shows) that, while restricted in Maryland, are unrestricted in 33 states by last count. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, background checks only cover about 60 percent of gun sales.
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 a far more imminent danger. Fixing the background check — and closing the private sale loophole on a national basis — 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 beyond a meaningful criminal background check while gaining the comfort that terrible armed rampages like the one that took place in South Carolina might be made less frequent.
Sometimes overlooked in discussions of this nation's falling violent crime rate (and it's fallen every year since 1994 on a per capita basis) is the role of Brady background checks that have denied guns to 2.4 million prospective buyers who were either convicted of felonies, were fugitives from the law or were determined to be dangerously mentally ill. Surely fixing the system will yield even better results, making it just a bit more difficult to walk into a church and kill six women and three men gathered for a Bible study. As important as taking down the Confederate flag may be on a symbolic level as a repudiation of the kind of white supremacy that Mr. Roof embraced, fixing the leaky background check system would save lives of all kinds and likely in large numbers.