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'A Comedy of Errors': Why It's Time to Get Rid of the So-Called Terrorist Watch List

A new report finds people on the terrorist watch list can more easily buy guns than board planes. But the real problem lies deeper than that.
 
 
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If the recent outbreak of right-wing gun violence wasn't alarming enough, this week brought news that people whose names appear on the U.S. government's terrorist watch list have somehow managed to purchase firearms at a frighteningly steady rate.

Just how steady? According to a new report by the Government Accountability Office, folks on the list bought guns 865 times -- in 963 attempts -- over a five-year period. And not just guns -- at least one person purchased more than 50 pounds of explosives.

Scary, right? But don't seek out a Dick Cheney-style bunker just yet. Although some media outlets were quick to announce that "terrorists" can now buy guns more easily than they can board planes, these alarming headlines should have carried a pretty bold disclaimer: If the bad news is that people on the terrorist watch list can buy guns as easily as any law-abiding hunting enthusiast, the good news is that the so-called terrorist watch list is a total sham.

The 'Terror Gap'?

But first, the guns.

It may come as a surprise to most Americans that having your name on the government's terrorist watch list is not enough to render you unqualified to own dangerous weapons. Yet, according to the GAO study: "Under current law, there is no basis to automatically prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives because they appear on the terrorist watch list.

"Rather, there must be a disqualifying factor (i.e., prohibiting information) pursuant to federal or state law, such as a felony conviction or illegal-immigration status."

Of the 10 percent of unsuccessful attempts to purchase guns documented by the GAO, these factors -- and not the person's place on the watch list -- were to blame.

The GAO study was carried out at the behest of Democratic Reps. John Conyers of Michigan, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Robert C. Scott of Virginia, chairman of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, as well as New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg. The men had requested an update to a 2005 report, "Gun Control and Terrorism: FBI Could Better Manage Firearm-Related Background Checks Involving Terrorist Watch List Records," whose conclusions pretty much speak for themselves.

The disturbing findings of the new study were met with predictable political outrage.

"The special-interest gun lobby has so twisted our nation's laws that the rights of terrorists are placed above the safety of everyday Americans," Lautenberg declared in a written statement this week. "The current law simply defies common sense."

Lautenberg called the GAO report "proof positive that known and suspected terrorists are exploiting a major loophole in our law, threatening our families and our communities."

"This 'terror gap' has been open too long, and our national security demands that we shut it down," he said.

This week, Lautenberg introduced legislation to close the "terror gap." The "Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2009" would "provide the attorney general with discretionary authority to deny the transfer or issuance of a firearm or explosives license or permit when a background check reveals that the purchaser is a known or suspected terrorist, and the attorney general reasonably believes that the person may use a firearm or explosives in connection with terrorism."

On its surface, this might seem a legitimate counterterrorism measure as well as an important check on the out-of-control gun lobby (which, let's face it, wants to see firearms in churches, on school campuses and just about everywhere else). But for those who are stoking Americans' fear over "known and suspected terrorists" buying guns, an inconvenient fact remains: the government's so-called terrorist watch list -- an initiative of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center -- is, not-so-technically speaking, a complete joke.