A review by the Government Accountability Office determined that 247 people on the watch list bought guns last year, and also showed that between 2004 and 2009, more than nine out of ten individuals on the list who tried to buy guns succeeded.
"It defies common sense," said Sen. Lautenberg, D.-New Jersey, who requested the GAO report, "that people on the terror watch list continue to be cleared to buy weapons legally in the United States."
Current federal law does not prohibit people on the terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns unless there is a prohibiting factor, such as being a fugitive, a felon, renouncing U.S. citizenship or suffering mental impairment. Sen. Lautenberg has introduced legislation that would close this loophole and prevent known or suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms.
"This is a homeland security issue, not a gun issue," said. Sen. Lautenberg, "and there's no reason we shouldn't be able to stop a terrorist from buying a dangerous weapon in the United States."
In 2009, though they are not known to have been on the terror watch list, two men who had been under federal scrutiny for possible terror ties bought firearms that they then allegedly used to kill U.S. soldiers.
In August 2009, accused Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan purchased a handgun despite having been the subject of an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation for his contacts with radical Yemeni cleric Anwar Al Awlaki. Hasan is now charged with killing 13 people during the November 2009 shooting spree at the Army's Ft. Hood in Texas.
Just months before the Ft. Hood massacre, Carlos Bledsoe was arrested for allegedly shooting two Army privates and killing one in Little Rock, Arkansas. Bledsoe, also known as Abdul Hakim Muhammad, was allowed to purchase a rifle at a Walmart in the weeks before the shooting despite having been under investigation by the FBI for his extensive travels to Yemen.
The GAO sent a letter to Sen. Lautenberg on Wednesday detailing the results of its review. The letter notes, "From February 2004 through February 2010, individuals on the terrorist watch list were involved in firearm and explosives background checks 1,228 times, of which 1,119 (about 91 percent) of the transactions were allowed to proceed while 109 were denied."
Under existing federal law, legal firearms purchases are checked with the FBI's National Instant Background Check System, which runs record checks through the FBI's National Crime Information Center. Part of the NCIC database checks the FBI's Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File for individuals with gang or terrorism records.
The FBI unit responsible for background checks on gun purchases does provide leads to the FBI about some high priority terrorism suspects; but that watch list is not inclusive of everyone the government may have concerns about.
Although an FBI background check was run on Carlos Bledsoe, the FBI counterterrorism investigators working his case were apparently unaware and never informed of his purchase.
At a June 2009 Senate Appropriations Committee Hearing, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III explained the current notification system. "We are notified when there is a -- appears to be a purchase of somebody who is affiliated with a terrorist group," said Mueller. "But that is different than barring that individual from the outset from purchasing a weapon. But again, I have to defer to the Department of Justice in terms of the policy position that it is going to take on that issue."
Asked about Sen. Lautenberg's proposed legislation, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said, "The Department is committed to doing everything within its power to keep firearms out of the hands of persons who may intend to use those weapons to commit terrorist acts. To the extent Congress wishes to provide the Department with additional tools that would improve the status quo, we remain committed to working with them to achieve that goal."