WASHINGTON — The gunman charged in the Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre should not have been allowed to purchase the weapon used in the attack, FBI Director James Comey said Friday as he outlined a series of "heartbreaking" missed opportunities and background check flaws that allowed the transaction to take place.
"We are all sick that this has happened," Comey told reporters at an unusual, hastily scheduled meeting at FBI headquarters. "We wish we could turn back time, because from this vantage point, everything seems obvious. But we cannot."
He said he had ordered a review into what happened and that FBI officials would meet Friday with victims' relatives to explain the errors.
The cascading set of problems began with the drug-related arrest of Dylann Roof in South Carolina weeks before the shooting, touching off miscommunication between local and federal officials and revealing potential shortcomings in the government's background check process.
At issue was a police report from Roof's arrest in which authorities say he admitted to possessing illegal drugs. Under federal rules, that admission alone would have been enough to disqualify him from an April gun purchase even though he wasn't convicted of the charge.
But, Comey said, the FBI background check examiner who evaluated Roof's gun purchase order never saw the arrest report because the wrong arresting agency was listed on state criminal history records. Had the West Virginia-based examiner seen the police report, the purchase would have been denied, Comey said.
The purchase order was on hold for three days as the FBI examiner tried to figure out if it should be approved or rejected. Once that window closed without a clear answer, the gun dealer used its legal discretion to complete the transaction.
Comey said he learned about the problem on Thursday night and had directed an internal 30-day review into the situation and the FBI's background check process more generally.
"It may be a series of highly improbable events coming together, but this was a gun that was used to murder nine good people. So it's very important to me that we understand what we can learn from this," Comey said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, condemned the errors.
"It's disastrous that this bureaucratic mistake prevented existing laws from working and blocking an illegal gun sale," Grassley said. "The facts undercut attempts to use the tragedy to enact unnecessary gun laws."
Roof has been charged with murder in the June 17 slayings of nine people inside a historic black church in Charleston.
The problem unfolded like this:
Roof went to buy the .45-caliber handgun on April 11 from a licensed firearms dealer, Shooter's Choice, in West Columbia, South Carolina.
The background check examiner assigned to Roof's case identified through South Carolina records an earlier arrest on a drug charge. But the arresting agency that was listed, for reasons Comey said were unclear, was the Lexington County sheriff's office. The actual arresting agency was the Columbia police department.
Had she reached that police force, she would have seen the arrest report in which Roof admitted having the drug Suboxone, which is used to treat opiate addiction, Comey said.
The FBI's confusion was further compounded by local geography.
The background examiner knew Roof's drug arrest took place in Lexington County. But the spreadsheet she consulted that listed police agencies in the county did not include the Columbia police force. That department instead was listed as being in Richland County — where most of the city of Columbia is located.
The spreadsheet in retrospect should ideally have listed both counties as home to the city of Columbia, Comey said.
When she didn't see Columbia on her list, she selected what she thought was the most reasonable alternative — West Columbia, where the gun shop was located — but the police department there also said it had no record of Roof's arrest.
The Lexington County prosecutor's office didn't respond to her request for more information, and the sheriff's office said it had no records on the case.
Before she could track down the police report, the three-day window lapsed and the transaction went through on April 16.
Comey's announcement came within hours of the Confederate flag's removal from the South Carolina Statehouse. Families of the victims attended the ceremony.