WASHINGTON -- Under current U.S. law, there are several ways a person can fail the background check required to purchase a gun. Being on the FBI's terrorist watch list is not one of them.
A group of military veterans is hoping to fix that problem by reviving a long-stalled bill, the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act. The proposed law would allow the FBI to block gun sales to people on the watch list, closing what the veterans call the "terror gap."
"This is common-sense legislation that does not infringe on a gun-owner’s rights, and will protect our troops and our nation," said Vet Voice Foundation in a press release. The group, founded by veteran and progressive activist Jon Soltz, recently formed a new working group to rally veterans and ramp up pressure on Congress to prohibit such gun sales.
The working group is led by Ruben Gallego and Jackie Rodgers, both veterans and gun owners. Gallego, a former Marine infantryman and now a Democratic member of the Arizona legislature, argued that closing the gap was a smart move. "You wouldn't allow a known terrorist to get an airplane," he said. "Why are we are going to allow known terrorists to go pick up weapons?"
Both men said they were motivated by the threat to men and women in uniform, who have been targeted by shooting attacks over the past few years. In addition to shootings at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009, that same year a military recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark., was fired upon. Terrorist suspects also attempted to purchase weapons to attack Fort Dix, N.J., in 2007.
Rodgers, who served in the Army, said that veterans are uniquely placed to understand the issue. "A lot of veterans are gun owners," said Rodgers, who served in the Army. "And if you have veteran gun owners supporting this, they are speaking from both sides, from an understanding of being a gun owner and from an understanding of the potential of terrorism."
A 2011 report by the Government Accounting Office found that from February 2004 to February 2010, "individuals on the terrorist watch list were involved in firearm or explosives background checks 1,228 times; 1,119 (about 91 percent) of these transactions were allowed to proceed because no prohibiting information was found."
Gallego said that such numbers represent "a clear and present danger."
For years, Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) has introduced legislation in Congress to close the watch list loophole without success. "It goes to committee and just sits there," he told the New York Daily News in 2009. "It's been going on for a while."
Two years later, King is still waiting. He resubmitted the bill to the House in early 2011, with Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) submitting legislation to the Senate. But last year, as in 2009, the legislation never emerged from committee. Vet Voice plans to pressure members of Congress who voted against the bill in committee, a group that includes Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), who represents Fort Hood in his district.
Gallego believes that the inaction stems from a lack of information rather than widespread opposition. "A lot of congressmen just aren't well educated on the subject matter. I think they think this is some kind of anomaly, but it is a real threat," he said.
Gun lobbyists, however, disagree. The National Rifle Assocation is adamantly opposed to the law. The group posted a fact sheet online in April 2011 saying that the bill was "aimed primarily at law-abiding American gun owners." The NRA said that such gun owners could be in jeopardy of jail time if they were mistakenly or arbitrarily placed on the watch list. "Ninety-five percent of watchlisted persons are already prohibited from acquiring firearms in the U.S., because they are not U.S. citizens or legal resident aliens," they wrote.
An NRA spokesman confirmed to The Huffington Post that his organization's position has not changed since last year.
But some of the group's members appear to back the the proposal. In a 2009 poll of NRA members conducted for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, 82 percent said they would support measures to prevent those on the watch list from buying firearms. "If you look at prohibiting terrorists from buying guns, requiring background checks at gun shows, or other issues, you find widespread support for these measures," said pollster Frank Luntz, who ran the survey.
Gallego and Rodgers are both former NRA members. While they both left the group over disagreements with some of its positions, neither was surprised that most gun owners would agree with them on the terror gap. "NRA members are great Americans," Gallego said. "And they want to see the country protected as much as anybody else."