Between 2004 and 2014, the FBI completed 2,233 background checks involving individuals on the watchlist. Only 190 individuals were declined, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The GAO does not have data on how many firearms purchases were completed because dealers are not required to submit that information to the FBI.
“If the only mark on your record is that you are on the watchlist, you are allowed to purchase a firearm,” said David Maurer, the GAO's director of justice and law enforcement issues.
Background checks for firearm purchases are done using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, to instantly determine whether a prospective buyer is eligible to buy firearms or explosives, according to the FBI. The number of background checks done on people on the watchlist are a small fraction of the 100 million total firearm background checks in the last decade.
This issue has gained renewed traction in the wake of the Paris attacks last Friday. Feinstein again called on Congress this week to prevent suspected terrorists in the U.S. of legally purchasing weapons.
“One of the most important things we can do to keep this country safe is keep guns and other weapons out of the hands of potential terrorists,” said Feinstein said in a statement to ABC on Tuesday. “The majority of the victims in Paris were shot with Kalashnikov rifles, which are sold at gun dealers and gun shows across this country. There is simply no excuse for Congress to not close this dangerous loophole.”
Lawmakers have introduced bills over the years to try to prevent suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms and explosives. None, however, have passed because of strong opposition by the gun lobby.
The National Rifle Association which opposed previous bills, argued that the watchlist is too broad because it includes people who are still being investigated by authorities.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Feinstein and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) introduced a bill in February to give the Department of Justice authority "to prevent a known or suspected terrorist from buying firearms or explosives."
“I’m really concerned that at a time like this that we’re not taking what I think is this basic or fundamental action,” he said.
King also pointed out that the bill includes an appeal process for people who don’t believe they should be on the watchlist.
The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the watchlist program and calls the watchlisting process "unfair."
“The federal government’s watchlist system lacks the kind of narrow, specific criteria and rigorous safeguards that would help protect innocent people from the negative consequences of blacklisting," said Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. "Instead, the criteria are overbroad, ensnaring innocents, and the system as a whole is unfair and bloated with no meaningful way to clear one’s name and get off the lists.”
-Ben Siegel contributed reporting.