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Robert Farley
By Robert Farley May 7, 2010

Can suspected terrorists buy guns?

In the wake of a foiled car bomb attempt in Times Square, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg went to Washington on May 5, 2010, to lobby for legislation he hopes will keep guns out of the hands of terrorists.

"It's amazing but true: we can prevent terror suspects from boarding an airplane, but the FBI doesn't have the power to block them from buying dynamite or an AK-47," Bloomberg wrote in an op-ed for the Huffington Post the same day.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., echoed the claim in a Senate hearing: "The stark fact is that the United States Department of Justice has no authority to block the sale of firearms to suspected terrorists even when the department knows they are about to purchase guns."


Between February 2004 and February 2010, FBI data shows that people on the terrorist watch list went through the background check process to purchase firearms or explosives 1,225 times; and that 1,116 (about 91 percent) of the purchases were allowed to proceed because no "prohibiting information" was found such as felony convictions, illegal immigrant status, those dishonorably discharged from the armed forces or people adjudicated as mentally defective or who have been committed to a mental institution.

A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows Bloomberg is right: "Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law."

But that doesn't mean these purchases go unnoticed by the feds.

When a person on the "Known or Appropriately Suspected Terrorists" list applies to buy a firearm, it sets off notifications to various law enforcement and counterterrorism intelligence groups, according to the FBI assistant director Daniel D. Roberts' testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on May 5, 2010.

"In this situation, in a given investigation, the attempt may, in combination with other factors, lead to enhanced investigative methods, such as surveillance," Roberts stated. "What the attempt to buy a firearm means in a counterterrorism investigation, and as a result the subsequent actions it warrants, necessarily must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis."

But if no "federally prohibitive information" is uncovered, the purchases are allowed to proceed.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has introduced legislation to close the so-called "terror gap" in the nation's gun laws. Under the law, the FBI would be given the latitude to deny firearms and explosives sales to people on the suspected terrorist lists. Anyone denied a purchase could appeal to the courts to overturn it. The bill has the support of 500 mayors who are members of the bipartisan coalition Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

But it's not a slam dunk. Some legislators have raised constitutional issues with the proposal.

"Before we subject innocent Americans who have done nothing but have the wrong name at the wrong time having to go to court and pay the cost of going to court to get their gun rights back, I want to slow down and think about it," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in the Senate hearing.

"There's a difference between losing your rights based on a felony charge that has been proven in a court of law and appealed and is a conviction in the books, and being on some list that's at best suspect," Graham said.

"We're talking about a second amendment right," Graham said. "Some of the people pushing this idea are pushing the idea of banning handguns. And I don't think banning handguns makes me safer."

Whether the law makes sense is a political matter. But unless or until the proposed law is enacted, there is no dispute that the FBI currently does not have the power to block suspected terrorists from buying dynamite or an AK-47, as Bloomberg said, unless they have some other disqualifying factor such as a felony conviction on their record. And, in fact, people on the terror watch list have been able to purchase firearms or explosives more than a thousand times in the past six years. The purchases may trigger "enhanced investigative methods" from the FBI, but the sales are allowed just the same. We rate Bloomberg's statement True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Huffington Post, Op-ed: "Terror Suspects Are Buying Guns - and the FBI Can't Stop Them," by Michael Bloomberg, May 5, 2010

U.S. Government Accountability Office website, Report Summary: Terrorist Watchlist Screening: FBI Has Enhanced Its Use of Information from Firearm and Explosives Background Checks to Support Counterterrorism Efforts, May 5, 2010

Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Hearing: Terrorists and Guns: The Nature of the Threat and Proposed Reforms, May 5, 2010

FBI website, Daniel D. Roberts, Assistant Director, Criminal Justice Information Services, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Statement Before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, May 5, 2010

New York Times, Op-Ed: "Congress, Up in Arms," by Gail Collins, May 5, 2010

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