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Nancy  Madsen
By Nancy Madsen September 6, 2013

Mayors' group says Frank Wolf voted to let terror suspects buy guns

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, was recently targeted by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group led by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"Rep. Frank Wolf voted to allow terror suspects to buy guns," the group proclaimed on a web ad.

We decided to look at this claim, which clashes with Wolf’s tough-on-terrorism record. The 32-year congressman has accused the Obama administration of covering up details about a terrorist attack last September on an American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. He has vehemently opposed efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and allow civilian trials for 9/11 terrorists.

Kelly Steele, a spokesman for the mayors’ group, said the ad is based on a July 17 vote in the House Appropriations Committee on an amendment to the nation’s Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill.

The amendment, introduced by Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., would have allowed the attorney general "to deny transfer of firearms to persons known or suspected to be engaged in conduct related to terrorism." It failed on a largely party-line 29-19 vote. The mayors’ group has targeted each of the representatives who voted against the amendment.

"Under current law, someone can be too dangerous to board an airplane -- but can still legally buy guns and explosives," the group says in a web posting. "This dangerous loophole in our gun laws is called the Terror Gap."

The group is focused on an omission in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which the federal government and most states use to screen those buying firearms from licensed dealers. People may be barred from buying guns for a number reasons, including felony convictions, fugitive status, drug addiction, adjudication as mentally defective, status as an illegal immigrant, stay in the U.S. on a non-immigration visa, dishonorable discharge from the Armed Forces, a domestic violence conviction and criminal indictment.

But the ban does not extend to those who are suspected of terrorist activity and are on the FBI’s terrorist watch list. That could include U.S. citizens, people in the U.S. on immigrant visas and people here from about 40 allied nations for which the U.S. does not require a visa.

Since 2004, the federal government has kept data on the number of prospective firearm purchasers who are on the terrorist watch list. The 2011 cumulative figures showed of 1,453 people on the terrorist watch list who sought to purchase firearms or obtain an explosives license, 132 were denied for other reasons, while 1,321 were allowed to proceed. The FBI could not determine whether the purchase was actually made.

The Bush administration in 2007 asked Congress to pass legislation to allow the attorney general to deny a firearm purchase or explosives license "when the background check reveals the purchaser is a known or suspected terrorist and the attorney general reasonably believes that the person may use a firearm or explosives in connection with terrorism."

Every session since 2007, a bill to that effect has been introduced by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where it has never come up for a vote. The National Rifle Association has strongly opposed the legislation, saying it could be used to persecute law-abiding gun owners. A 2009 report by the General Accounting Office said if Congress wants to ban firearm sales to suspected terrorists, it should require the Justice Department to establish guidelines to protect privacy and civil liberties.

Wolf is open-minded to closing the "terror gap", but believes the thorny issues should be resolved in the Judiciary Committee, according to Dan Scandling, the congressman’s chief of staff. Scandling said the congressman’s vote against the bill reflected his dissatisfaction with the "gotcha" procedure of bringing it up in the Appropriations Committee.  

Matthew Dennis, a spokesman for Rep. Lowey, said the congresswoman sidestepped the Committee because the it was killing ground for the legislation. "Members of Congress who support closing this dangerous loophole have tried every avenue possible," he said.

In 2011, Lowey offered an identical amendment in the Appropriations Committee that was defeated by a 27-18 vote with Wolf voting against it. An article in The Hill said Wolf offered to work Lowey to "refine the amendment," but the congresswoman rejected his offer.

The article said, "Wolf said the amendment affected too many Americans since more than 500,000 people are on the terrorist list, according to the Justice Department. He noted that he regularly helps ordinary constituents get off the no-fly list after being put there by mistake."

A few final notes: Tom Culligan, Wolf’s legislative director, said the congressman supports the federal background check system and has voted to expand its funding. We should also mention that Wolf was endorsed by the NRA in last fall’s elections and received a B+ rating from the organization.

Our ruling

There’s no doubt that Wolf, sitting in the House Appropriations Committee, voted against an amendments to budget bills that would have allowed the attorney general to deny firearm sales to those suspected of abetting terrorism. Wolf had concerns that the legislation could trample the civil liberties of innocent people and objected to the procedure of bypassing Judiciary Committee -- a panel that has quashed similar bills since 2007.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns goes a step further in saying Wolf "voted to allow terror suspects to buy guns." That’s an inflammatory statement that suggests Wolf put gun rights ahead of protecting the nation from terrorists. It ignores Wolf’s spurned offer in 2011 to work with the sponsor of the amendment to find a compromise that could keep guns away from suspected terrorists while protecting the rights of those who have been unfairly placed on the government’s watch list.

So the mayors’ statement has accuracy, but omits important details about Wolf’s position. We rate it Half True.

Our Sources

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, ad against Rep. Frank Wolf, July 25, 2013.

MAIG, "Meet the 29 Members of Congress Who Voted Against Closing the Terror Gap," July 23, 2013.

Emails from Kelly Steele, spokesman for MAIG, Aug. 8, 2013.

House Appropriations Committee votes, "Fiscal 2014 Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations," Page 2, July 17, 2013.

Federal Bureau of Investigation, "National Instant Criminal Background Check System Fact Sheet," accessed Aug. 12, 2013.

U.S. State Department, "Visa Waiver Program," accessed Aug. 12, 2013.

Government Accountability Office, "Justice and Law Enforcement: Firearm and Explosives Background Checks Involving Terrorist Watch List Records," May 21, 2009.

GAO, Letter to Sen. Lautenberg, "Update on Firearm and Explosives Background Checks Involving Terrorist Watch List Records," April 27, 2011.

Government Printing Office, H.R. 720, accessed Aug. 7, 2013.

The Library of Congress, THOMAS for bill status, accessed Aug. 13, 2013.

Conference call with Dan Scandling and Tom Culligan, chief of staff and legislative director for Rep. Wolf, Aug. 13, 2013.

House Appropriations Committee, Report on the Commerce, Science and Justice appropriations bill, July 17, 2013.

MAIG, "Mayors Against Illegal Guns Applauds $55 Million in Funding to Improve Reporting to National Instant Criminal Background Check System," July 11, 2013.

National Rifle Association, "Why NRA opposes gun control supporters `terrorist watchlist" bills," April 19, 2011.

Emails from Rep. Lowey’s spokesmen Matthew Dennis and Mark Prentice, Aug. 26 and 29, 2013.

The Hill, "Guns rights issue inflames House Appropriations meeting," July 13, 2011.  

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