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Published: Friday, 5/7/2010

Congress, up in arms

BY GAIL COLLINS

THERE seems to be a strong sentiment in Congress that the only constitutional right suspected terrorists have is the right to bear arms.

"I think you're going too far here," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) at a hearing of the Senate homeland security committee this week. He was speaking in opposition to a bill that would keep people on the FBI terrorist watch list from buying guns and explosives.

Say what? Yes, if you are on the terrorist watch list, the authorities can keep you from getting on a plane, but not from purchasing an AK-47. This makes sense to Congress because, as Mr. Graham pointed out, "when the Founders sat down and wrote the Constitution, they didn't consider flying."

The subject of guns turns Congress into a twilight zone. People who are perfectly happy to let the government wiretap phones go nuts when the government wants to keep track of weapons permits. A guy who stands up in the House and defends the torture of terror suspects will nearly faint with horror at the prospect of depriving someone on the watch list of the right to purchase a pistol.

The Obama Administration has been criticized by many Republicans for having followed the rules about how long you can question a terror suspect before you read him his rights. These objections have been loud since the arrest of Faisal Shahzad in the attempted Times Square bombing. No one seems moved by the fact that Mr. Shahzad, after being told that he had the right to remain silent, continued talking incessantly.

The homeland security committee hearing on "Terrorists and Guns: The Nature of the Threat and Proposed Reforms," concerned a modest bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) It would allow government to stop gun sales to people on the FBI terror watch list the same way it does people who have felony convictions.

Because Congress has rejected this idea, 1,119 people on the list have been able to purchase weapons in the past six years. One of them bought 50 pounds of military grade explosives.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly went to Washington to plead for the bill. Almost everyone had a good word for the T-shirt vendor in Times Square who first noticed the suspicious car and raised an alert. Really, if someone had introduced a bill calling for additional T-shirt vendors, it would have sailed through in a heartbeat.

Gun legislation, not so popular. Mr. Lautenberg's bill has been moldering in committee, and that is not going to change.

The terrorist watch list is huge, and some of the names on it are undoubtedly there in error. The bill would allow anyone denied the right to purchase a firearm an appeal process, but that would deprive the would-be purchaser some precious gun-owning time.

Before we subject innocent Americans "to having to go into court and pay the cost of going to court to get their gun rights back, I want to slow down and think about this," said Mr. Graham.

Slow is going to be very slow, and the thinking could go on for decades.

Gail Collins writes for the New York Times.



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