Guns and Terror: Should People on U.S. Watch List Be Barred from Buying Firearms?

New GAO report says 90 percent of such people were approved for guns.

May 5, 2010, 9:55 AM

May 5, 2010— -- An overwhelming number of individuals who are known to belong to a terrorist group or are on the U.S. terror watch list are being allowed to carry firearms and guns, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

From Feb. 2004 through Feb. 2010, FBI data shows that individuals on the U.S. terrorist watch list were involved in firearm or explosives background checks 1,225 times, according to the GAO. About 91 percent of the time, or 1,116 of these transactions were allowed to proceed because no prohibiting information was found, such as felony convictions, illegal immigrant status, or other disqualifying factors, and 109 of the transactions were denied.

"Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law," the GAO report states. "However, for homeland security and other purposes, the FBI is notified when a firearm or explosives background check involves an individual on the terrorist watchlist."

This "dangerous loophole" in the system is "stunning and infuriating," Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs said today.

The committee held a hearing today to discuss the merits of a law barring people on the many U.S. watch lists from purchasing weapons.

"We are simply not doing all we can to stop terrorists from buying guns," said Lieberman, a Connecticut independent.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., introduced legislation last year to prohibit people on the terror watch list, or who are known to belong to a terrorist organization, from purchasing guns. The bill would authorize the attorney general to deny sale or transfer of firearms to known or suspected terrorists. But it has been struck down by gun rights advocates who said it would breach citizens' constitutional rights.

Others cited concern about the accuracy of U.S. watch lists and the errors that have emerged in them.

"The watch list can be inaccurate," Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, said today. "It is not, in other words, equivalent of a criminal history report."

Collins cited the example of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who found out in 2004 that he was on the airlines watch list when he was traveling from Washington, D.C. to Boston. It turned out that his name was added to the list by mistake. Kennedy at the time said it took him several weeks to get his name removed from the list.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., expressed concern about the bill's impact on constitutional rights. He said it was "odd" that of the 1,225 people on the terrorist watch list who were approved to purchase a firearm, none was charged. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he didn't know how many of those people were facing terror charges.

"There is a disconnect here between what we're saying and reality," Graham said. "The watch list has so many problems with it. .. that I think it's not appropriate to go down the road we're going because a constitutional right is involved."

"Before we subject innocent Americans who have done nothing wrong," Graham added, "I want us to slow down and think about this."

Graham equated banning gun purchases for people on the terror watch list with attempts by other lawmakers to ban handguns completely.

The bill would require anyone trying to obtain a weapon to pass the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). If the individual matches any of the prohibitive criteria, they may be denied from purchasing a firearm.

"We don't want to rob people of their constitutional right," Lautenberg told senators, "But to err on the side of protection is a chance we sometimes have to take."

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who sponsored similar legislation in the House, urged senators to support the bipartisan bill.

"We cannot allow any more acts of violence on account of weapons legally falling into the hands of those who wish to commit acts of terror," King said. "We must do all that is possible to put tighter rules in place to assist law enforcement in their brave efforts to keep our cities and neighborhoods safe and secure. The war on terror must be fought from all directions if we're going to stay a step ahead of our enemies."

There is currently no law that prevents such people from obtaining a weapon. They can only be denied if they have a felony conviction or are illegal immigrants.

Lawmakers Seek to Prevent People on Terror Watch List from Obtaining Firearms

Terrorists could cause significant casualties if they successfully detonated explosives in the United States. But the alleged Times Square bomber, the alleged Christmas Day bomber and the men who plotted to release cyanide in the New York City subway could have something in common: failure.

Indeed, the only successful terror attacks perpetrated within the United States since 9/11 were with guns, a point Lieberman made in pushing for the legislation.

"The threat is real," he said. "Terrorists with high-powered automatic weapons could inflict heavy casualties in seconds."

There was spirited debate between Lieberman and Graham, normally allies on national security issues. Lieberman said Second Amendment rights, just like the First Amendment right to free speech, cannot be unlimited.

Graham said a person's rights as a citizen should be abridged if they are suspected of being a terrorist. He said authorities should be able to consult a secret FISA judge to keep a suspected terrorist such as Faisal Shahzad out of the legal system and without his or her Miranda rights.

"I don't think it's smart for us to say the homeland is not part of the battlefield," Graham said.

Bloomberg and New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told senators that although the Times Square bombing attempt failed, terrorists are already plotting their next move,. The two lobbied Congress to ban people listed on the terror watch list from buying guns, and called it the "terror loophole."

"It is time to close the 'terror gap' in our gun laws," Bloomberg said. "At a time when the threat of terrorism is still very real, as we in New York City know all too well, it is imperative that Congress close this terror gap in our gun laws -- and close it quickly."

"This is not about the Second Amendment," he said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events