May 5th, 2010
02:50 PM ET

Security Brief: Terror Watch List folks who seek guns get approved, GAO says

Suspects on the government's Terror Watch List attempted to buy firearms or explosives 1,228 times in the past six years and won government approval in the vast majority of cases, according to a government report.

In 1,119 cases - 91 percent of all the requests - the government granted approval for the persons to proceed with the purchase, according to the General Accountability Office.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, disclosed the updated figures Wednesday at a hearing on the so-called "Terror Gap," the name given to the ability of people on the watch list to buy weapons. "This loophole in our gun laws defies common sense and is effectively hanging out a welcome sign for terrorists to arm themselves," Sen. Lautenberg testified.

The Senate hearing on terrorists and guns was scheduled long before this past weekend's failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square. But the timing added to the sense of urgency. Congress will appear to have "blood on our hands" if a person carries out an attack with weapons purchased while he or she was on the watch list, said Rep. Peter King, R-New York, a sponsor of the bill.

But critics of the proposal say the bill may trample on rights of law-abiding Americans who have become entangled in the lengthy Terror Watch List.

The watch list consists of approximately 400,000 people, most of whom are not U.S. citizens, the director of the Terrorist Screening Center testified in December.

There have been numerous cases in which Americans with no known ties to terrorism have been placed on the list, most notably the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

"The evidence used to compile the watch list is often fragmentary and can be of varying degrees of credibility," Collins said. "It is not, in other words, the equivalent of a criminal history report."

One government report concluded about 35 percent of the people on the list were there "based on outdated information or material unrelated to terrorism," Collins said.

The "Terror Gap" bill would give the Attorney General the discretion to deny the transfer of a firearm when a background check reveals the purchaser is a known or suspected terrorist, and the Attorney General believes the person may use the weapon in connection with terrorism. The government would be allowed to approve of the sale if canceling it would tip off the suspect.

The bill also includes safeguards allowing people to appeal a denial, supporters say.

Guns have been used in two terrorist attacks in the United States in the past year: the Nov. 5, 2009, shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, in which a gunman killed 13 people and wounded 30 and on June 1, 2009, when a gunman killed one soldier and wounded another at a military recruiting office in Arkansas.

It is unclear whether the bill would have kept Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the Times Square bombing attempt, from buying a weapon. Shahzad, who appears to have no criminal history, legally purchased a .9 mm gun, authorities say. The gun was found in a car that he drove to JFK Airport in a get-away attempt Monday evening, they say.

soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. Tommy Barrios

    All Demoncrats are morons and idiots when it comes to private gun ownership. They believe guns can talk to people and tell them to to do evil things. They believe guns just jump into peoples hands and command them to start shooting. All Deomncrats must be voted out of office, from local dog catcher to the putrid pile of excrement currently befouling 1600 Pennsylvania Ave!

    May 8, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
  2. John N Florida

    If that 'Watch List' weren't a total work of fiction, it might have some relevancy. Until they bring it in to the real world, nobody has the right to deny anybody anything based on it.

    May 8, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Claes

    "An armed man is a citizen, an unarmed man is a subject." Yes, in the 18'th century when the police and army were just a slightly larger body of armed man. Only difference if it comes to it today is this: if you don't have a gun and protest violently the police use rubber bullets, if you do have a gun they use live ammo instead. Coordinated, trained, with armored vehicles and helipcopters... do you think you really have an ounce more influence with a gun these day?

    The right to dear arms today has nothing to do with the original reason: it's entirely moot. Today it's about a way of life, and there's nothing wrong with that, but that's the reason. The reason is not that a militia or a bunch of guys with guns would be able to actually defend themselves against the government if it actually tried to subject them to something by force.

    About terror watch lists and obtaining explosives: if you're on the terror list, you should not get any approval. Period.

    May 8, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Will in Texas

    As someone who was on the terror watch list for at least two years (who knows why, they won't tell you why, conduct an investigation, or let you answer questions they may have so you can clear things up), I made two handgun purchases while on the list: one a .22 target pistol and the other a 9mm handgun for home protection.

    So I'm personally responsible for 2 of these 1100 or so requests... And I am not a terrorist by any means.

    The only way I was able to get off the terror watch list was to force the federal government to do a background investigation by applying for a concealed handgun permit. After undergoing a local, state, and federal background investigation, I mysteriously dropped off the list and my permit was speedily approved.

    Now I don't get hassled/questioned/searched/delayed every time I go to the airport.

    May 8, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Will in Texas

    By the way "hi", I am a native-born citizen and (if it important to the discussion) just about as white as can be. And, not that it should matter, I can trace some of my ancestors all the way back to the Jamestown colony in the very early 1600s.

    May 8, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Geoff

    I knew this one would bring the gunophiles out of the wood work. A law either makes sense as its written or it doesn't...The author of the bill is never going to be the one to enforce it anyway. ATF and most police departments are a chock a block with fire arms enthusiasts. I am a Gun owner, support right to carry by law abiding citizens and don't object to proving that I am. That said I try very hard not confuse my weapons with my genitalia. I wish the NRA types did..A gun is just one self defense tool... and having one does not make you any more or less free.

    Doing what needs to be done to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill, religious fanatics, and sociopaths is simply common sense. Do it

    May 9, 2010 at 7:25 am | Report abuse |
  7. guestHawk

    well.....what if you need a valid u.s.passport, driver's license, and ssn card to buy a gun? no docs, no gun.

    May 9, 2010 at 8:53 am | Report abuse |
  8. C. Heston

    This bill is stupid and a political stunt and the sponsors know it. But, it's a creeping infringement on 2nd Amendment rights, just like all other gun laws. So, it will be seen for what it is, and it will fail. Real terrorists, whether lone wolves or supported by rogue governments, will not piddle with 9mm's and .38's. They will acquire their weapons through more discrete means and will get heavier firepower that's not attainable by ANYONE through normal legal channels. Once you establish a "watch list" controlled by the government, it's a very slippery slope. And with Time's Joe Klein rattling off "sedition" against Rush and others, you can see how the media itself contributes to grouping persons into classes for the purpose of control and restriction. Both government and the liberal media are together on this, and that's what's necessary to them to being about the required "change". It will be resisted with every fiber in our bodies. Believe that.

    May 9, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
  9. J. Powell

    Here is a view from an Australian...

    Why are you bothering with such lists? Your death toll from obesity and health related diseases far outweighs any terrorism death toll. I have shares in McDonalds... This week i have contributed to the killing of 7692 (1/52 of the 400,000 people who die of obesity related deaths) americans... Go USA....

    But hey, don't you worry about the intruder in your house, just your right to shoot him, pull the trigger, go on... I'm putting money on you dying as you pull the trigger of a heart attack...

    Great system!!


    The world hates you, good on 'em!!

    May 9, 2010 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Teresa

    That's our tax dollars & government failing us fault! There's no one else to blame ...........
    Soooooo SAD ;(

    May 9, 2010 at 11:16 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Ian

    The greatest right is; of course, to live in Freedom as an American, yet there are many Natural Rights within that scope really granted by a government won through the service of the Revolutionary-Era soldier and kept in place by others service around the world.

    The Locke concept might be balanced by the Moral Relavatism and Kantian theories, but it's value is unprecedented in that the very real outcome is people's initial understanding that they can balance the rights of an individual against the backdrop of representative government and questionable standpoints of other vested interests. This understanding can be both attributed to what is logical and constantly requires our input on an ongoing basis; as well.

    May 10, 2010 at 2:45 am | Report abuse |
  12. Gun nut in CA

    "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

    - Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

    May 10, 2010 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
  13. AC

    Claes, tell that to Vietnamese.

    May 10, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  14. AC2

    If we all want to be safe – we should stop polarizing on opposite sides of the debate, and try to work together to stop terrorism and crime full stop! And at the same time, allow law abiding people the freedom they deserve! Unhindered access to firearms, and banning firearms, are both ineffective policies.
    Instead, we should be analyzing watch lists and criminal histories to target EXACTLY the right people, and then work together to make sure these vicious animals never get their hands on firearms.
    I don't particularly like firearms, but nor do I like the idea of taking them away from law abiding citizens.

    May 10, 2010 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Captaincaveman

    All this "supposed" security hasn't helped matters at all. It's just turning the world into a prison. The only effective answer to all this is to stop people from certain other countries or religions coming in altogether.
    That may not sit well with people – and it may even discriminate against some people who don't deserve it – but the honest truth is – it'll make us all a lot safer.
    It's hard for a terrorist to bomb America, or anywhere else, if he can't get there in the first place.
    If America doesn't start to realize this soon, you'll start losing all your freedoms that you're so desperate to protect.
    And as for the rights of all these other cultures to be free – they haven't earned that right yet! They should have to prove that they deserve the right. Just like Western countries did.

    May 10, 2010 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
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