In the midst of memorial preparations for 9/11 victims, the FBI made public a "credible" threat that appeared timed to further wound our nation.
The information, gleaned from the daring takedown of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, indicates that at least two people may already be in the United States planning to explode car or truck bombs in New York and Washington, D.C. The FBI also reports that al Qaeda may be considering attacks with small arms or homemade explosive devices.
In response to the horrific tragedy of September 11, 2001, federal officials have taken extraordinary steps to prevent other airliners from being turned into incendiary devices and bombs. Yet, inexplicably, Congress has repeatedly failed to deny suspected or known terrorists easy access to guns and explosives.
As a lasting tribute to the Americans and others who lost their lives on 9/11, Congress should muster the courage to defy the gun lobby and prevent terrorists from purchasing weapons that can then be used on our families and communities.
President Obama told CNN shortly after the Norway massacre that the "lone wolf terrorist" is the biggest threat to our security. But Congress' inaction on closing the terror gap keeps our defenses lowered.
A University of Maryland Global Terrorism study (PDF) indicates that terrorists with guns are the greatest threat. In the 10 years since 9/11, the majority of deaths from terror attacks in the U.S. have come from attacks with guns. Most notable is the Nov. 5, 2009 Fort Hood massacre in which 13 people were killed.
Because of the gap in our laws that allows suspected and known terrorists to buy guns, the accused killer, Army Major Nidal Hasan , was able to walk into the heart of the Fort Hood military base and shoot down the men and women working to protect this nation from such threats.
In June of this year, this brutal irony was insufficient to persuade the House Judiciary Committee to vote for an amendment to the Patriot Act that would have blocked people on the FBI's terrorist watch list from purchasing firearms or explosives. The bill, offered by Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, was rejected on a party line vote, with 21 Republicans opposed to it.
Recently, Illinois Rep. Robert Dold became one of the few Republicans to publicly support a bill (H.R. 1506), which would close the terror gap. A companion Senate bill (S.34) sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg also awaits action.
In an April 27 letter to Sen. Lautenberg, the Government Accountability Office said more than 1,300 people on the Terrorist Watch List were able to purchase a gun because they were not disqualified under federal law.
An earlier GAO report (PDF) indicated that some on the Terrorist Watch List appeared to be making multiple attempts to purchase guns. Some 1,228 purchase attempts through February 2010 were by just 650 individuals. Nearly 70 percent of the individuals (450 of 650) were involved in multiple transactions and six were involved in 10 or more transactions.
In June, a month after the House Judiciary Committee rejected closing the terror gap in federal gun laws, one of al Qaeda's terrorist recruiters -- American-born Adam Gadahn -- explained how easy it is to acquire assault weapons in the United States:
"America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?"
It should matter to Congress that dangerous individuals, encouraged by al Qaeda, are able to buy as many guns, including assault weapons, as they want. That Congress is willing to allow persons on the terrorist watch list to stockpile military-style firepower suggests an extraordinary lapse of common sense and political will.
Dennis Henigan is Acting President, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the author of Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009).
A photo of him is available here. For more information about the Terror Gap, visit this website.