Firearms are easy to obtain in the United States—even if you’re a suspected terrorist. Christopher Ingraham reports:
"Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law," the Government Accountability Office concluded in 2010. The law prohibits felons, fugitives, drug addicts and domestic abusers from purchasing a firearm in the United States. But people on the FBI's consolidated terrorist watchlist — typically placed there when there is "reasonable suspicion" that they are a known or suspected terrorist — can freely purchase handguns or assault-style rifles.
And, as the GAO found, a number of them do: Between 2004 and 2014, suspected terrorists attempted to purchase guns from American dealers at least 2,233 times. And in 2,043 of those cases — 91 percent of the time — they succeeded. There are about 700,000 people on the watch-list — a point that civil libertarians have made to underscore that many on the list may be family members or acquaintances of people with potential terrorist connections.
Now there are a lot of problems with the terrorist watchlist. As Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux have noted, the guidelines for putting people on the list don’t require any evidence they are actually linked to a terrorist organization. That means a lot of people on the list shouldn’t be, perhaps hundreds of thousands of them:
“Instead of a watchlist limited to actual, known terrorists, the government has built a vast system based on the unproven and flawed premise that it can predict if a person will commit a terrorist act in the future,” says Hina Shamsi, the head of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “On that dangerous theory, the government is secretly blacklisting people as suspected terrorists and giving them the impossible task of proving themselves innocent of a threat they haven’t carried out.” Shamsi, who reviewed the [guidelines] document, added, “These criteria should never have been kept secret.”
So, clearly, the watchlist itself needs improvement and that ought to come first. But nonetheless, there surely are many thousands of people who are legitimately on the list. And those who are should surely be barred from legally obtaining firearms.
But as usual, the National Rifle Association has stood in the way of legislation that is designed to prohibit terrorists from purchasing firearms legally, and that obstructionism goes back to 2007.
Naturally, one the NRA’s arguments is that terrorists will just acquire firearms illegally, so such a law would only hurt “law-abiding citizens.” The gun lobby also trots out its standard rap about this kind of legislation being “sponsored by gun-control extremists."
This year, as Ingraham points out, there is a new piece of legislation—the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2015—sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Rep. Peter T. King of New York. The bill has 17 co-sponsors, all of them Democrats. Previous versions had several Republican co-sponsors. Since February, the latest bill—H.R. 1076—has been sitting in the House Committee on the Judiciary: Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. There is very good chance it will meet the same fate as its predecessors and never get off the committee’s shelf.
This tells you a lot about the priorities of certain lawmakers. They are perfectly willing to block Syrian refugees on the chance that two or three might be extremists plotting to harm Americans once allowed into the country. But cross the NRA by keeping guns out of the hands of suspects on the watchlist who are already here? Wouldn’t want to get on Wayne LaPierre’s shit list, now would we?