In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris that left 129 people dead this month, U.S. Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, along with Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer of New York, are trying to pass a bill that they say would prevent suspected terrorists in America from buying guns.
They've signed a letter along with 34 other Senators, most of them Democrats, urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to schedule the "Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2015" for a vote:
According to a Government Accountability Office letter, between February 2004 and December 2014, individuals on the federal terrorist watchlist tried to buy or obtain a firearm or explosive license or permit at least 2,233 times. In 2,043 of those cases (91 percent of the time), the individuals successfully passed the background checks and were able to purchase the weapons or explosives. In 2013 and 2014, FBI data showed that individuals on the terrorist watchlist were involved in firearm-related background checks 485 times, and 455 of those (about 94%) were allowed to proceed. When over 90 percent of those on the terrorist watchlist who try to pass a background check succeed, it is absolutely clear we have a major vulnerability that could lead to deadly terrorist attacks.
Support for the bill, which has been in committee since February, appears largely split along partisan lines. The bill has vocal support from Senate Democrats, as well as Independent Senator and Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
It was sponsored in the House by New York Republican Peter King. But McConnell and Ryan have remained largely silent about the issue. Meanwhile, gun advocates and libertarians say the bill would infringe on people's civil liberties and right to due process, by making it possible for the Attorney General to refuse someone a gun and deny certain information about why they'd been refused — without indicting that person or convicting them of a crime.
The bill's sponsor in the Senate, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said her goal was to prevent people on the terrorist watch list from buying a gun — a list that includes the no-fly list, a list that prevents people from boarding planes that fly out of the United States because they're suspected to be dangerous terrorists.
"If you’re too dangerous to board a plane, you’re too dangerous to buy a gun," said Feinstein, ranking Democrat of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to the Washington Post this week.
On conservative website The Federalist, civil liberties advocate Sean Davis described the bill as a "political" move from Democrats, saying "if there is sufficient evidence to show that these individuals are engaged in terrorism, the best way to make America safer is to indict these terrorists and arrest them."
The bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives website doesn't list any restrictions from gun purchase for people who are on a terrorist watch list, but it does say anyone indicted in or convicted of a crime cannot buy a weapon.
The National Rifle Association has also signaled it would oppose the bill. Spokesperson Jennifer Baker pointed to various news stories about flaws in the terrorist watch list, saying that "The NRA’s only objective is to ensure that Americans who are wrongly on the list are afforded their constitutional right to due process."
The ACLU didn’t have any comment on the bill to prevent suspected terrorists from obtaining weapons, but they have criticized terrorism watch lists more generally, saying the lists lack transparency and that "innocent people can languish on the watch lists indefinitely, without real recourse."
John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA, said striking a balance between personal freedom and public security can be complicated, but in light of recent terrorist threats, limiting people's access to guns is a worthwhile idea.
"There's always this balance between civil liberties and security," he said. "In our country, at least, I think we’ve maintained the civil liberties end of that very successfully."
McLaughlin said the new threats from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group also known as ISIS, are some of the worst he's seen. ISIS controls territory in the Levant and encourages supporters from Western nations to carry out lone-wolf attacks on their home soil, and took credit for the attacks on Paris.
"The truth of it is, it’s not all that hard to get guns in our country," McLaughlin said. "We are at a moment in time when this terrorist group, probably the worst we have ever dealt with in our lifetimes, is threatening to come here."
According to MSNBC, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this month that he's not familiar with the legislation. McConnell's press office declined to comment on the letter; House Speaker Paul Ryan could not be reached for an immediate response.