It probably would surprise most Americans — even ardent gun advocates — to know that the federal government has almost no authority to block firearm sales to international or domestic terror suspects.
The nation’s disgracefully weak gun control laws are apparently of little concern to the U.S. Senate, which recently rejected the most basic safety measures, including comprehensive background checks.
But those lax laws have been noted by al-Qaeda, which in 2011 issued a video message featuring Adam Gadahn, an American-born member of the terrorist group, urging followers to commit violent acts of jihad by exploiting weaknesses in U.S. gun laws and background check system.
America, he said, is “awash with easily obtained firearms.”
“What are you waiting for?” he asked.
Under current laws, having their name on a federal terror watch list does not prohibit people from buying guns — as long as they don’t have a criminal or mental-health record. People on terror watch lists are not among the nine categories of people prevented from buying guns, and they can pass background checks at the point of sale. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombing suspects, was listed on a terror watch list.
Between 2004 and 2010, more than 1,000 people on terror watch lists were able to buy guns or explosives after a background check, the Government Accountability Office reported.
To be sure, terror watch lists are not always reliable. People with no connection to terrorism mistakenly have ended up on them. The solution is to fix the problem involving errors, and ensure due process in the case of mistakes. The answer is not to continue to allow people who aim to do serious harm to the nation easy access to weapons.
It’s illogical that a person on a terror watch list is considered too dangerous to board an airplane, but OK to buy an assault-style rifle.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns suggests that background checks could have prevented several mass shootings. In 2009, for example, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan shot to death 13 people and wounded 30 others. He was able to pass a background check and buy a handgun, even though he was under investigation by the FBI for terrorism links. FBI agents investigating him never even knew he was trying to buy weapons.
In 2009, Daniel Patrick Boyd and six others were arrested for conspiring to murder U.S. military personnel at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va. Mr. Boyd, under investigation by the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, had compiled an arsenal of assault rifles.
There’s a fix for this problem. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), and Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.), introduced bills this year that give the Department of Justice authority — subject to judicial review — to block sales of firearms and explosives to domestic and international terrorist suspects. At least the measures would have prevented designated terror suspects from passing a criminal background check and purchasing guns or explosives from federally licensed dealers.
Moreover, the bills provide due process by providing several ways to appeal Justice Department findings. In 2007, an identical bill was drafted and endorsed by the Bush administration.
Incredibly, but not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association has opposed the measures — arguing there’s no evidence that terrorists are buying guns — even though polls show most gun owners support them.
It’s time to stop the NRA from thwarting the will of the American people — and undermining the security and safety interests of the nation.