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C. Eugene Emery Jr.
By C. Eugene Emery Jr. June 15, 2016

Schumer: 244 people on terror watch list tried to buy guns in 2015, 91% got them

The mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., June 12 reopened the debate over who should access to guns, with Democrats calling for stricter controls.

During a June 14 news conference in Washington, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said most people suspected of terrorism in the United States haven't haven't found it difficult to purchase a weapon.

"Last year, 244 people on the terror watch list tried to purchase guns; 244 suspected terrorists walked into gun shops and attempted to purchase a firearm; 223 were able to get the firearm. Only 21 went empty-handed," Schumer said. "Ninety-one percent of suspected terrorists, when they sought to purchase a gun, last year were successful, according to GAO."

The GAO is the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

First, some background on these "suspected terrorists."

The FBI's Terrorist Screening Center maintains a list of people "known or reasonably suspected of being involved in terrorist activity." This list is secret but it's believed to have around 700,000 names collected by U.S. and global agencies. It's estimated that 10,000 of those names are Americans and the rest are foreigners.

We looked at this issue in December when we examined U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy's tweet that "91 percent of suspected terrorists who attempted to buy guns in America walked away with the weapon they wanted." We rated Murphy's statement Mostly True.

(Murphy, who is running in Florida's Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2016, issued the tweet after Republicans repeatedly blocked a bill that would keep people on the FBI list from buying guns.)

Murphy was referencing a GAO report from March 2015. But Schumer's statement focused on the entire year of 2015. So we found the updated report.

Issued March 7, 2016, it found — as Schumer reported — that only 21 of the 244 transactions attempted by people on the terrorist watch list at a licensed firearms shop were blocked. In 223 cases, the customers got their weapons.

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But there are important omissions in these numbers.

So we don't know that 244 people on the list attempted to buy guns. We know that people on the list attempted to buy guns 244 times. 

On the flip side, the number of people on the watch list who legally purchased weapons may be far higher because the tally doesn't include transactions made at gun shows, where federal background checks aren’t conducted.

Finally, there have been questions about the accuracy of the watchlist itself.

A 2009 U.S. Justice Department audit showed that 35 percent of the people on the list were "associated with FBI cases that did not contain current international terrorist or domestic terrorism designations" and should have been removed from the list.

There also are multiple entries for slight variations of the same name, which means people with the same name as a person on the watch list were stopped at airports, a problem that experts say has largely been resolved.

Our ruling

Schumer said that in 2015, "244 suspected terrorists walked into gun shops and attempted to purchase a firearm; 223 were able to get the firearm" according to the GAO report.

He correctly notes that this is gun shop data from the GAO, but he is wrong to suggest that the report is a tally of the number of suspected terrorists trying to make a firearm purchase. As the report makes clear, it's the number of attempted transactions, some of which might have been done by the same individual.

The statement is accurate but it needs clarification and additional information, so we rate it Mostly True.

Our Sources

Congressional Quarterly transcript, "Senate Minority Leader Reid Holds Media Availability After Closed Policy Luncheon," June 14, 2016

PolitiFact, "Terrorist watch list no obstacle to buying guns, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy says," Dec. 29, 2016

U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, tweet, Dec. 8, 2015

U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General, Audit Report 09-25, May 2009

U.S. Government Accountability Office, Terrorist watchlist screening testimony, May 5, 2010

National Counterterrorism Center, Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment FAQ , Aug. 1, 2014

U.S. Rep. Dianne Feinstein, "Senators Introduce Bill to Stop Terrorists from Buying Firearms, Explosives," Feb. 24, 2015

U.S. Government Accountability Office, "Update on Firearm and Explosives Background Checks Involving Terrorist Watchlist Records," March 6, 2015, and "Update on Firearm and Explosives Background Checks Involving Terrorist Watchlist Records," March 7, 2016

Washington Post, "From 2004 to 2014, over 2,000 terror suspects legally purchased guns in the United States," Nov. 16, 2015

ABC News, "Individuals on FBI’s Terrorist Watchlist Allowed to Legally Purchase Firearms," Nov. 18, 2015

Salon, "NRA fail: More than 2,000 people on terror watch list have legally purchased guns in the last 10 years," Nov. 18, 2015

U.S. Rep. Dianne Feinstein, "Feinstein on Visa Waiver Program, No Guns for Terrorists Legislation," Nov. 19, 2015

The Hill, "Senate blocks effort to keep guns from terrorists," Dec. 3, 2015

Newsweek, "Terrorist watch list no bar to buying guns," Dec. 3, 2015

MSNBC, "GOP blocks bill to stop terrorists from buying guns," Dec. 4, 2015

Newsweek, "Republicans block two gun control measures after San Bernadino shooting," Dec. 4, 2015

PolitiFact, "Marco Rubio: 700,000 Americans could be affected by bill tying terrorist watch list to gun purchases," Dec. 6, 2015

U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 1076 discharge petition, Dec. 7, 2015

Los Angeles Times, "California members stall business on House floor as Democrats try to force gun control votes," Dec. 8, 2015

The Hill, "Dems force protest votes on gun control," Dec. 8, 2015

U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, "Murphy demands Congress vote on bill to close terrorist gun loophole," Dec. 8, 2015

Associated Press, "States Explore Blocking Gun Sales to Terror Watch Lists," Dec. 17, 2015

PolitiFact California, "Did 2,000 suspected terrorists legally buy guns in the U.S.?," Dec. 17, 2015

New York Daily News, "NRA, Republicans block proposed law to stop suspected terrorists from buying guns in U.S.," Dec. 18, 2015, H.R. 1076, accessed Dec. 28, 2015

FBI, "Terrorist Screening Center," accessed Dec. 28, 2015

Interview with Erin Moffit Hale, Murphy spokeswoman, Dec. 9, 2015

Interview with David Joly, FBI Terrorist Screening Center spokesman, Dec. 10, 2015

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Schumer: 244 people on terror watch list tried to buy guns in 2015, 91% got them

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