Terrorist Watch List No Bar to Buying Guns

Guns for sale are displayed in a gun shop in Roseburg, Oregon, on October 3. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Say you're on the government's terrorist watch list and want to buy a gun. No problem, according to FBI data released last year: From 2004 to 2014, more than 2,000 people listed as known or suspected terrorists bought a handgun, sports rifle or assault weapon.

"Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law," the Government Accountability Office also reported in 2010. The GAO said it did not have data on how many firearms purchases were completed because dealers are not required to submit that information to the FBI.

In the wake of the latest mass shooting incident, President Barack Obama called attention to a hole in gun check procedures that allow as many as a million people whose names are on no-fly or terrorist watch lists to buy guns.

They "can't get on planes, but those same people who we don't allow to fly could go into a store right now in the United States and buy a firearm and there's nothing that we can do to stop them," he said. "That's a law that needs to be changed."

A White House national security official declined to specify how new laws would work. Presumably, future gun purchasers' names would be checked against the FBI's databases.

"We are saying there ought to be legislation to ensure that those on the no-fly list are not able to purchase guns," the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue. "That's a common sense step. If someone is deemed too dangerous to fly, they should not be able to purchase a deadly weapon. We need the support of Congress in order to move forward with this and determine the modalities of implementing that change."

Earlier on Thursday, the Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, vowed to "force the Senate to vote today on amendments that do something to stop gun violence."

Not that they are likely to go anywhere, since the Republican-controlled body has beaten back every gun-control measure in recent years and repealed others.

Following the November 13 Paris attacks, Senator Dianne Feinstein revived a measure that would prevent anyone on the terror watch list from buying a firearm or an explosive while traveling in the United States. "They don't have to bring it with them, they can buy it once they get here," Feinstein declared.

"It's an effort she picked up from the late New Jersey [Democratic] Senator Frank Lautenberg, who introduced the measure multiple times while in the Senate," The Washington Post reported. They all failed.

But heightened fears about the ease with which terrorists can travel between the Middle East and Europe may give the legislation new momentum. Late Thursday, leaders in the House of Representatives fast-tracked a bill to tighten laws that let people from 38 countries, including all of the European Union, visit the U.S. for 90-day stays without obtaining a visa.

But any gun-control measure is likely to face stiff resistance from the National Rifle Association. The NRA beat back gun-control measures even as the country grieved over the massacre of 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, three years ago this month.

In the aftermath of Wednesday's shootings, Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy again called for legislation to restrict terrorist suspects from buying guns.

"It just speaks to common sense that those on the terrorist watchlist shouldn't be able to buy guns," Murphy said in a statement to Newsweek. "Shame on us if we can't find bipartisan, common ground to make sure that terrorists are on the same list as criminals of those who are prohibited to buy guns."

Murphy also scorned legislators who called out for "prayers" after the San Bernardino incident, but nothing more. They should "get off their ass," he told a reporter from Vox.

But the watch lists have also come under fire by critics who cite their false positives, secrecy, lack of due process, costs and inefficiency in keeping some terrorists from flying.

More than 47,000 people were on the no-fly list in August 2013, including about 800 Americans, according to a leak to the Intercept news media site. "The documents also showed that in August 2013, there were 680,000 people on the government's master terrorism watchlist," the American Civil Liberties Union noted, and "even according to the government's own records, 280,000 of them have no affiliation with a recognized terrorist group."

Four years earlier, there were a million people on the terrorist watch list, according to figures gathered by USA Today, which cited the FBI and office of the Director of National Intelligence as sources. The two numbers could not be immediately reconciled. But they revealed problems in keeping accurate entries. Between 2007 and 2009, 51,000 people filed "redress" complaints that they were wrongly put on the watch list, according to the Department of Homeland Security. "In the vast majority of cases reviewed so far," USA Today reported, "it has turned out that the petitioners were not actually on the list, with most having been misidentified at airports because their names resembled others on it."

Most people don't find out they're on a watch list until they try to board a plane. In the unlikely chance that legislation sponsored by Feinstein and other Democrats passes, a person wrongly placed on one of the terrorist watch lists could be prevented from buying a gun for a few days.

But as an administration official said with a dry chuckle, "That's something we can live with."

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