Charleston mass shooting victims can sue U.S. over gun purchase: court

FILE PHOTO: Dylann Roof sits in the court room at the Charleston County Judicial Center to enter his guilty plea on murder charges in state court for the 2015 shooting massacre at a historic black church, in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S., April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Grace Beahm/Pool/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – Survivors of a 2015 mass shooting at a South Carolina church can sue the U.S. government over its alleged negligence in allowing Dylann Roof to buy the gun he used to kill nine African-Americans, a federal appeals court said on Friday.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the government was not immune from liability under either the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) or the Brady Act to prevent handgun violence.

Friday’s decision by a three-judge panel revived 16 lawsuits that challenged lapses in how the government vetted prospective gun purchasers, including the FBI’s management of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

William Wilkins, a former chief judge of the 4th Circuit representing the victims, said Congress had charged the FBI with adopting procedures “to stop people like Roof who could obtain assassins’ weapons” from doing so.

“The government has to do what the law requires,” Wilkins said in an interview. “It failed to do that in this case.”

Roof, a white supremacist, had been admitted to a Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015, where he then used his .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol in the shooting.

Victims said a proper background check would have shown that Roof had recently admitted to drug possession, which would have disqualified him from buying the gun from a federally licensed dealer two months earlier.

Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote for the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court that no one disputed that a proper check would have stopped Roof.

But he said U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel in Charleston was wrong to dismiss the lawsuits on immunity grounds in June 2018, even as Gergel faulted the government’s “abysmally poor policy choices” in managing the background check system.

Gregory said the case turned on the NICS examiner’s alleged negligence in disregarding mandatory procedures. “The government can claim no immunity in these circumstances,” he wrote.

Circuit Judge G. Steven Agee partially dissented, saying the government was not immune from Brady Act claims, but that Gergel properly dismissed the FTCA case.

Roof, now 25, was sentenced to death in January 2017 after being convicted on 33 federal counts related to the shooting, including hate crimes. He pleaded guilty three months later to state murder charges, and was sentenced to nine consecutive life terms without parole.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Alistair Bell)

U.S. states sue Trump administration in showdown over border wall funds

A view shows a new section of the border fence in El Paso, Texas, U.S., as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Jeff Mason and Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A coalition of 16 U.S. states led by California sued President Donald Trump and top members of his administration on Monday to block his decision to declare a national emergency to obtain funds for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California came after Trump invoked emergency powers on Friday to help build the wall that was his signature 2016 campaign promise.

Trump’s order would allow him to spend on the wall money that Congress appropriated for other purposes. Congress declined to fulfill his request for $5.7 billion to help build the wall this year..

“Today, on Presidents Day, we take President Trump to court to block his misuse of presidential power,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

“We’re suing President Trump to stop him from unilaterally robbing taxpayer funds lawfully set aside by Congress for the people of our states. For most of us, the office of the presidency is not a place for theater,” added Becerra, a Democrat.

The White House declined to comment on the filing.

In a budget deal passed by Congress to avert a second government shutdown, nearly $1.4 billion was allocated toward border fencing. Trump’s emergency order would give him an additional $6.7 billion beyond what lawmakers authorized.

Three Texas landowners and an environmental group filed the first lawsuit against Trump’s move on Friday, saying it violated the Constitution and would infringe on their property rights.

The legal challenges could slow Trump’s efforts to build the wall, which he says is needed to curb illegal immigration and drug trafficking. The lawsuits could end up at the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court.

Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Michigan joined California in the lawsuit.

The states said Trump’s order would cause them to lose millions of dollars in federal funding for national guard units dealing with counter-drug activities and redirection of funds from authorized military construction projects would damage their economies.

In television interviews on Sunday and Monday, Becerra said the lawsuit would use Trump’s own words against him as evidence that there was no national emergency to declare.

Trump said on Friday he did not need to make the emergency declaration but wanted to speed the process of building the wall. That comment could undercut the government’s legal argument.

“By the president’s own admission, an emergency declaration is not necessary,” the states said in the lawsuit. “The federal government’s own data prove there is no national emergency at the southern border that warrants construction of a wall.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)