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Planes, Guns and Terrorists

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Should suspected terrorists be blocked from buying guns before they commit a violent crime? The gun lobby apparently doesn't think so.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently made the astounding discovery that, in the five years ending in February, 2009, 865 individuals on the government's terrorist watch list were able to buy guns at licensed gun dealers. Of course, if 865 people on the watch list had been permitted to board airplanes during that period, heads would roll. It is now taken for granted that suspected terrorists should not be allowed on airplanes. If we think someone is sufficiently dangerous to bar him from getting on a plane, why should we let him buy a gun?

The concern about gun-wielding terrorists is real. Two years ago, the FBI arrested a group of terrorists who had been training with assault weapons for an attack on soldiers at Fort Dix. We should not forget that, on January 25, 1993, Mir Aimal Kansi, a Pakistani who was on the terrorist watch list at the time, opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle on cars waiting to enter the grounds of the CIA building in Langley, Virginia. He killed two CIA employees and wounded three others. Despite being on the watch list, Kansi was able to buy his gun three days before the shooting at a Chantilly, Virginia gun shop, after passing a Virginia State Police background check.

The problem is that federal gun laws are so weak that individuals who have close ties to terrorist groups can be denied guns only if they have committed a felony, or fall into another of the limited categories of prohibited buyers. Legislation to close this "terror gap" has been introduced in the Senate by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and in the House by Representative Peter King (R-NY). It would give the Attorney General discretion to prevent gun sales to any person known or suspected to have engaged in conduct in aid of terrorism. Presumably, the candidates for such treatment would be those on the existing terrorist watch list.

The National Rifle Association opposes the terror gap legislation, citing concerns about "the quality and integrity" of the existing watch list. Indeed, deficiencies in the list have been well documented. In May of this year, the Justice Department's Inspector General issued a report finding that, of the 400,000 names on the FBI's consolidated terrorist watch list, 24,000 were on the list based on outdated or irrelevant information. The question is: Are these problems with the existing list a good reason to oppose closing the "terror gap" on gun sales?

No one would seriously argue that the over-inclusion of names on the list justifies a policy of allowing other individuals with known ties to terrorist groups to board airplanes. The rational course is to institute policies that reduce the risk of over-inclusion, not to jettison all efforts to keep suspected terrorists off airplanes. Just as the current over-inclusion is insufficient to justify junking the "no-fly" list, it also is insufficient to justify the failure to institute a "no-gun" list. Unless, of course, we think that it is fine for suspected terrorists to have guns, but not to board airplanes. Few would see the logic in that position.

If the Lautenberg/King approach were to become law, there would no doubt be some mistakes made, in which gun sales are blocked due to incorrect information, mistaken identities, or other problems. Recognizing that no public policy applied in the real world is perfect, the Lautenberg/King legislation provides for mechanisms to correct such mistakes while making it harder for terrorist suspects to arm themselves.

There is certainly room for argument as to what the appropriate standard should be for denial of gun sales to persons who present a risk of terrorist activity, but have not yet been convicted of a crime. This is a particularly interesting issue in light of last year's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller interpreting the Second Amendment to grant an individual right to have guns in the home for self-defense.

But the core issue is whether the government should have some power to block gun sales to suspected terrorists who do not yet fall within an existing category of prohibited purchasers. As to that issue, the shortcomings of the existing terrorist watch list should hardly be decisive.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.