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One government report concluded about 35 percent of the people on the list were there "based on outdated information or material unrelated to terrorism," Collins said.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