Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other New York City metro-area leaders called on Congress Wednesday to close the "terror gun gap" that they argue makes a Mumbai-style attack against an American city easier for terrorists.
The hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Reform, held just days after the arrest of suspected Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, examined whether people on the terrorism watch list should be legally prevented from purchasing firearms and explosives. (Shahzad was not on the terrorist watch list.)
"The threat is all too real. Terrorists armed with semi-automatic and high-powered weapons can inflict heavy casualties (.pdf) in seconds," said committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), citing the Nov. 2009 massacre at Fort Hood and the June 2009 murder of an Army recruiter in Arkansas as examples.
"The more we can do to deny would-be terrorists access to these weapons, the safer we will be, " said New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, reminding lawmakers that "a small team of operatives using AK-56 assault rifles" had paralyzed Mumbai, India, for nearly 60 hours and killed approximately 170 people.
(For more on the threat of a Mumbai on the Hudson, see "NYPD Prepared for Mumbai-Style Attack, Says Police Commissioner")
Between 2004 and February 2010, FBI data showed that 650 individuals on the terrorist watch list had background checks conducted on them while attempting to purchase firearms and explosives, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Overwhelmingly, the transactions were allowed to proceed, testified Eileen R. Larence (.pdf), the GAO's director for homeland security and justice, because "no prohibiting information was found—such as felony convictions, illegal immigrant status, or other disqualifying factors."
Over the six-year period a total of 1,228 background checks were conducted for purchases attempted by people on the watch list, according to the GAO. Of those purchases, 91 percent were allowed to proceed, while a total of 109 were denied. The government did not start tracking the reasons for denials until April 2009. They have since included "felony conviction, illegal alien status, under indictment, fugitive from justice, and mental defective," said Larence.
The bipartisan witnesses from the New York City metropolitan area argued Congress must close this loophole quickly.
"When gun dealers run background checks, should FBI agents have the authority to block sales of guns and explosives to those on the terror watch lists—and deemed too dangerous to fly?," Republican Mayor Bloomberg asked (.pdf). "I believe strongly that they should."
Last year, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced a bill to do just that. The bill (S. 1317) would give the U.S. attorney general the ability to deny a gun transfer or a gun or explosives license to a person reasonably suspected of terrorism ties. People denied the right to purchase a firearm could then challenge the attorney general's decision. Testifying before the committee, Lautenberg said his bill is "not anti-gun—it’s anti-terrorist (.pdf)."
Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who recently introduced similar legislation in the House, described the law as "an issue of common sense (.pdf)."
Not everyone agreed.
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) cautioned the law could deny a U.S. citizen on the terrorist watch list their 2nd Amendment rights. He also asked the witnesses whether anyone on the terrorist watch list that purchased guns had ever been prosecuted for a terrorist offense. No one knew.
Bloomberg, however, told Graham that it's reasonable that if someone on the No-Fly List cannot fly, then that person should not be able to own a gun.
Graham was unmoved, later stating that there's no constitutional right to fly but there is a constitutional right to bear arms.
Attorney Aaron Titus, privacy director for the Liberty Coalition, called Sen. Lautenberg's legislation an unconstitutional violation of due process and lampooned it.
"In short, S. 1317 should be re-named the 'Gun Owners Are Probably Terrorists Act,'" Titus said, "because it gives the attorney general the discretion to deny someone the enumerated constitutional right to bear arms (.pdf), based on 'suspicion' and 'belief' of terrorist inclinations."
Lautenberg's legislation currently sits before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
♦ Photo of gun store by Marcin Wichary/Flickr