Critics Point to 'Terror Gap' in Gun-Control Laws

New details about the case of accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan is refocusing attention on what critics call a glaring "terror gap" in federal firearms laws that has allowed hundreds of suspected terrorists to purchase weapons in recent years.

A General Accounting Office study last summer found 963 instances in which individuals on the FBI's terrorist watch lists sought to purchase guns between February 2004 and February 2009.

In 90 percent of those cases, or 865 times, the terror suspect was permitted to buy the gun because. under the rules governing a federally mandated background check, they did not fall within a number of prohibited categories, such as being a convicted felon, an illegal immigrant, or a fugitive from justice.

The Hasan case is bringing a new focus on those figures—and what they say about federal firearms laws. Senior federal investigators have declined to say whether Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood shooting, was ever on the FBI's terror watch list, but all indications so far are that he probably wasn't.

Still, officials have confirmed that the bureau conducted "an assessment" of Hasan earlier this year after discovering that he had between 10 and 20 e-mail communications with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical imam now living in Yemen who had been vigorously investigated by the bureau for years because of his association with two of the 9/11 hijackers.

But even while an FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force was reviewing Hasan and his activities to determine if he might pose a threat, the bureau's counterterrorism officials were never informed about another arguably relevant piece of information that had popped up in a separate FBI computer database last summer: on August 1, Hasan had bought a high-powered semiautomatic FN 5.7 handgun.

(It turns out that Hasan in 1996 also had gotten a "concealed" gun permit in Virginia that would haven been transferable to Texas. When he submitted his Virginia application, he submitted a certificate showing he had taken an NRA gun-safety course.)

Not only was the information about Hasan's August 2009 handgun purchase not shared with the Joint Terrorism Task Force that was monitoring Hasan's communications with Awlaki, the records would have been immediately destroyed under a provision known as the Tiahrt Amendment.

Named for Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican and a staunch backer of gun ownership, the amendment requires the Justice Department to destroy all records of a gun purchase within 24 hours after the buyer's purchase once it has been approved by a computerized background check run by the FBI's National Instant Check System.

"This shows the huge gap" in federal firearms laws, said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, a group that has campaigned for tighter restrictions on gun purchases. "He's buying a gun that is known as a cop killer and which is used by Mexican drug cartels. That should have set off alarm bells."

For the past several years, gun-control groups have pushed legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York, that would deny gun purchases to individuals on the FBI's terrorist watch list. The argument of Lautenberg and others is that if somebody is deemed too dangerous or suspicious to board an airplane, they shouldn't be permitted to buy a weapon. Lautenberg's bill would go even further, permitting the attorney general to use his or her discretionary authority to deny a gun to anybody "suspected" of providing "aid" or "material support" to terrorism.

But the provision has run into resistance from the NRA—and gone nowhere in Congress. Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says it is the NRA and its friends in Congress such as Tiahrt, that restrict basic information sharing among federal agencies about gun purchases. "It's the paranoia of the gun lobby," he said. "They don't want anybody sharing any information about who is buying guns."

But NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said there's nothing about the Hasan case so far that argues for changing any laws or federal procedures. "We believe there's no reason for any government agency to keep records on any law-abiding citizen who buys a gun," he said.

Grief After a Rampage: See NEWSWEEK's photo gallery of the tragedy at Fort Hood.