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Jake Tapper grills Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Syria, gun control and terrorism on the Dec. 6, 2015, edition of "State of the Union." (Screengrab) Jake Tapper grills Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Syria, gun control and terrorism on the Dec. 6, 2015, edition of "State of the Union." (Screengrab)

Jake Tapper grills Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Syria, gun control and terrorism on the Dec. 6, 2015, edition of "State of the Union." (Screengrab)

Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll December 6, 2015
Linda Qiu
By Linda Qiu December 6, 2015
Katie Sanders
By Katie Sanders December 6, 2015

Presidential candidates continued to argue Sunday about whether stricter gun control measures could do anything to undermine the mass shootings that have plagued the country over recent weeks.

Republican presidential candidates and Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio defended their decisions to vote against a Democratic proposal last week that would have allowed the attorney general to ban "known or suspected dangerous terrorists" from obtaining firearms or explosives.

Rubio said the government’s terrorist watch list often includes people who aren’t actually terrorists, which would unfairly prevent some Americans from a Second Amendment right.

"If these were perfect lists, that would be one thing," he said on CNN’s State of the Union. "But there are over 700,000 Americans on some watch list or another that would all be captured under this amendment the Democrats offered. And that's the problem."

Rubio’s count is way off, so it rates Mostly False. The number of Americans on the consolidated terrorist watch list is likely in the thousands, not hundreds of thousands.

A spokesman for the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center declined to comment on the watch list’s current size, but a 2011 FBI estimate puts it at 420,000 individuals. Of those, only about 8,400 were American citizens or legal residents. The no-fly list subset included about 16,000 names, only 500 of whom were Americans.

More recent estimates of the number of people on the list, foreign and American combined, now hover around 700,000, the number Rubio cited.  But there’s no way that the number of Americans on the list has grown to 700,000, said Timothy Edgar, who oversaw civil liberties and national intelligence issues, including the terrorist watch list, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

"Rubio is almost certainly off by orders of magnitude," said Edgar, now a visiting fellow at Brown University.

Some innocent people have been wrongly included in the terrorist watch list or the no-fly list, which can affect their lives in ways such as having to go through extra airport security or being stopped from boarding a plane. But for an American to get on that list by accident is "harder than people think," said Martin Reardon, former chief of the FBI Terrorist Screening Center’s operations branch.

The Charleston loophole

Republicans have criticized Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for tying gun control to the San Bernardino, Calif., shooting that left 14 dead and is being investigated as terrorism. But Clinton said on ABC’s This Week that the same laws that allowed people on the no-fly list to buy guns also enabled Dylann Roof, the suspect in the Charleston, S.C., church massacre.

"(Roof) should have never have been given a gun, but the universal background check was not fast enough," Clinton said. "We should be able to approach both of these with some sense of, you know, unity about how we prevent terrorist attacks and how we prevent the wrong people from getting ahold of guns."

Clinton’s point about the background check in Roof’s case rates Mostly True.

The FBI performs background checks on would-be gun buyers in South Carolina and 29 other states through its National Instant Criminal Background Check System. If the check isn’t denied or completed in three days, the gun seller can proceed with the sale.

Examiners ran out of time in tracking down the details in Roof’s case. But Clinton’s claim does not fully capture that the reason for the delay was a clerical error.

Roof tried to buy a .45-caliber Glock pistol in West Columbia, S.C., a suburb of Columbia, on April 11. A West Virginia-based FBI examiner began vetting him the next business day, April 13, and found that Roof had been arrested for a felony drug charge on March 1. Because the records didn’t show a conviction, the examiner couldn’t deny the purchase but continued to look into Roof’s criminal history.

Roof’s rap sheet mistakenly listed the neighboring county’s sheriff office as the agency that arrested him, leading the FBI examiner to request more information on Roof from the wrong  county sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices. The examiner then contacted the West Columbia police, who replied they had no records of Roof’s arrest.

Had the database listed the correct police station (Columbia) or included the report in which Roof admitted to possessing drugs, things would have turned out different, according to FBI Director James Comey.

"If a NICS examiner saw that, Roof would be denied permission to buy a gun. But the examiner never saw that," he said in a press release.

When the three days were up on April 16, the case was still listed as "pending" and Roof was able to purchase the gun. Two months later, on June 17, Roof allegedly shot and killed nine worshippers and injured one in a historically black church in Charleston.

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