A suspect on the FBI’s Terrorist Watch List may be considered too dangerous to fly on an airplane, but he or she can buy guns freely. There are only 11 times when the federal government can prevent a sale, and a suspicion of terrorism is not one of them. Meanwhile, laws governing many explosives are even laxer.
Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was listed on one classified watch list several years ago. He managed to assemble a small arsenal including semi-automatic weapons, although he reportedly did not have the state-required permits. We do not yet know many details about how the brothers obtained the guns, including whether they were purchased in a lawful sale.
According to government data, however, many other known or reasonably suspected terrorists have legally bought weapons since 2004, thanks to the “terror gap” in federal law:
Under current laws, if a background check reveals that your name is on the national terrorism watch list, you’re still free to walk out of a gun dealership with a firearm in your hands — as long as you don’t have a criminal or mental health record.
Data from the Government Accountability Office show that between 2004 and 2010, people on terrorism watch lists tried to buy guns and explosives more than 1,400 times. They succeeded in more than 90 percent of those cases, or 1,321 times.
While both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have shown a willingness to close the terror gap since at least 2007, the National Rifle Association has fought repeatedly to preserve it. The Bush administration supported a bill giving officials discretion to block a suspected dangerous person from buying, and Republican Rep. Peter King (N.Y.) was a chief sponsor in the House of Representatives.
Recently, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) proposed it again as an amendment to the Senate gun violence prevention package that fell a couple votes shy of the 60 votes needed to break the filibuster.