Under current U.S. laws, anyone on the national terrorism watch list can purchase a gun. This is true even if a background check identifies the purchaser as someone who is on the list. As long as the individual is clear of problematic criminal or mental health issues, they are good to go.
While this may seem like an obviously troublesome law, there is a good amount of ongoing reasonable debate going on about it. On one side, officials say this is a ridiculous loophole in background check laws. On the other, gun rights lobbyists argue that limiting constitutional rights – even the rights of those on the terrorism watch list – is no small ordeal.
"It's absurd that we allow people to buy unlimited AK-47s, AR-15s and Uzis, even if we feel they are too dangerous to be allowed on a plane, even after they've gone through a security check," says Jon Lowy, a lawyer for the Brady Campaign.
Michal James Barton, a White House counterterrorism official during the Bush administration, says the issue is not so black and white. “The U.S. Constitution specifically protects the right to purchase firearms. The Constitution has no specific right to use transportation of any mode," he says.
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Barton added that the terrorism watch list is imperfect, and that many on the list are not terrorists, but instead only have some form of relation to suspected terrorists. “Some of them are merely individuals who have proximity to terrorism suspects and are not themselves the focus of any investigation or any suspicion whatsoever.”
Others in the gun lobby believe that closing the terror list loophole will not prevent terrorists from acquiring guns, but instead will only cause them to buy guns on the black market. Richard Fieldman of the Independent Firearm Owners Association says that if the loophole is closed “we don't know if they're ever going to get them, when they get them, where they got them."
As of right now, the federal government can only prevent the sale of a firearm for 11 reasons. Suspected ties to terrorism or suspicion that a gun could be used in an attack are not one of them.
Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg has proposed legislation since 2007 that would close the terror list loophole. His proposed bill would alert the U.S. Attorney General if a name on the watch list was trying to buy a gun. The Attorney General would then be given the authority to either block or authorize the sale. The bill was included as an amendment in last week’s gun control bill that did not pass in the senate.
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Regardless of anyone’s opinion on broader gun control measures, this specific loophole deserves serious attention. It is true that gun ownership rights are a delicate matter given their standing in the constitution. But at the same time, what qualifies as a common sense safety measure?
Senior Al-Qaeda operative Adam Gadahn released a video message in 2011 laughing at how easy it is for terrorists to get guns in America. “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms," he said. “…you can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and buy a gun without a background check. So, what are you waiting for?” he said with a smile on his face.
If a message like that from a terrorist organization doesn’t warrant serious consideration, then what does? For reasons stated above, I completely understand why we shouldn’t block anyone on the watch list from buying a firearm. The list isn’t perfect, and many on it are not threats to society. But many people on the list are threats to society that would love nothing more than to harm Americans.
Knowing this, doesn’t it make sense that officials should be alerted when one of the true threats is trying to buy a weapon?
When Al-Qaeda mocks your safety laws, it might be time to review what they’re laughing at.