Last week, the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee sent a loud and clear message that pandering to gun lobby insanity is far more important to them than national security. A political gift is now dangling in front of the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats. Will they grab it?
The vote occurred during Judiciary Committee consideration of legislation to extend the Patriot Act. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) offered an amendment to give the Attorney General the authority to deny the sale of firearms by licensed dealers to known or suspected terrorists. Most Americans are surprised to learn that being a known or suspected terrorist will prevent you from getting on an airplane, but not from buying guns or explosives. Indeed, according to the General Accounting Office, since 2004, over 1,300 individuals on the terrorist watch lists have been allowed to purchase firearms or explosives.
As a matter of policy, this "terror gap" in our gun laws is intolerable. The American public agrees. A recent survey shows that 88 percent of registered voters, and an identical percentage of gun owners, want to "prohibit people on the terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns." An earlier survey by Republican pollster and wordsmith Frank Luntz showed that 82 percent of self-acknowledged National Rifle Association members agree.
The NRA's leadership, though, is adamantly opposed to closing the "terror gap," and the gun lobby's shadow loomed large over the Judiciary Committee vote. On the day after two suspected terrorists seeking to buy guns and explosives were arrested in New York City, the Quigley Amendment was defeated, in a straight party-line vote of 21-11. The 21 Republicans were unanimous in voting to allow known terrorists to buy as many guns as they want, even though the idea to give the Attorney General additional authority to block gun sales to terrorists originated with the Bush administration.
How can any politician pretend to be serious about protecting the nation from terrorism, while voting to allow known terrorists to buy guns, including assault weapons? Osama bin Laden is dead, but the war on terror is far from over. The threat of retaliation for bin Laden's death must be taken seriously. There also is evidence that al Qaeda's new tactical emphasis is on small-scale urban attacks with guns and explosives.
Attorney General Holder has said that the raid on bin Laden's compound is yielding intelligence that likely will add more names to the terrorist watch lists. Nevertheless, the 21 Judiciary Committee Republicans apparently have no problem allowing those individuals to buy guns and explosives. It all amounts to being "tough on terror" only if it's OK with the gun lobby.
It is one thing to pander to an intimidating special interest lobby; it is quite another to compromise national security by doing so. That the Judiciary Republicans were willing to march in lockstep to allow obeisance to the gun lobby to trump the war on terror is a political gift to the Democrats that will keep on giving, if only the Democrats will seize the issue. But will they? For too long, too many in the Democratic Party leadership have been frozen into inaction on the gun issue by their own exaggerated fear of NRA reprisal.
Only recently has the Obama administration started to publicly address the continuing tragedy of American gun violence. In the wake of the horrific Tucson shooting, as Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) courageously struggles to recover from the head wound she suffered in that shooting, there is renewed hope that Democratic leaders will begin to embrace common sense reforms and that there will be at least some in the Republican Party willing to stand up to the NRA.
The lesson of the Quigley Amendment vote is that Congressional Republicans are quite willing to follow the NRA off a political cliff. The question is: Will the Democrats offer them a safety net?
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009).