“America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms.”
Such was the proclamation of Adam Gadahn, a United States citizen who, as a spokesman for Al-Qaeda, released a series of videos encouraging violence against Western targets. The one encouraging followers in the U.S. to buy guns was made in 2011 and highlighted by NPR in 2013. Gadahn was reportedly killed in January by a CIA drone strike, but his words of encouragement to aspiring attackers still resonate today.
In the wake of the deadly attacks in Paris, which are being attributed to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), questions have been asked about how easily this kind of attack could be replicated in the U.S. Specific attention has been paid to the assault-style weapons used in those attacks, reportedly Kalashnikovs or AK-47s. Could potential attackers, known to authorities (as some of the French suspects were), get their hands on such weaponry on this side of the Atlantic?
The answer is: quite probably yes.
"Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law," according to a 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office (PDF). As the Washington Post noted Monday, the law prohibits felons, fugitives, drug addicts and domestic abusers from purchasing guns, but not people on the FBI’s Terrorist Watchlist, a compendium of several government databases designed to track known or suspected terrorists and those with close ties to them.
According to the GAO, as reported by the Post, “Between 2004 and 2014, suspected terrorists attempted to purchase guns from American dealers at least 2,233 times. And in 2,043 of those cases — 91 percent of the time — they succeeded.” (That number is likely higher. The Post story says a computer error caused an undercount in 2011 and 2012.)
It is a problem that has been on the radar of lawmakers for a least a decade. In 2005, then-FBI director Robert Mueller told a House Appropriations subcommittee that he believed that appearing in a terrorism database should be added to the list of nine other criteria that would prevent the legal purchase of firearms.
In 2007, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., introduced legislation that tried to close what he called the “terror gap” by allowing the Attorney General to deny gun sales to those found “to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism.” It was a move backed by Bush administration Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.
Lautenberg reintroduced the legislation in 2008, and co-authored similar legislation in 2009 with Republican Rep. Peter King of New York.
Each time, the proposed laws failed to get out of Congress after staunch opposition from the National Rifle Association. The NRA has consistently argued that such laws prevent legal gun purchases but don’t stop people from acquiring firearms illegally.
Jonas Oransky, legal counsel at Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that advocates for stricter gun laws, sees the lawful gun sales now permitted to terror suspects as a big enough threat to require federal action. “The terror gap poses an unacceptable danger to public safety and should be closed immediately,” he told Al Jazeera in an email.
Legislation similar to Lautenberg’s bill was introduced earlier this year. Sponsored by King and Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., the “Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2015” included provisions allowing those denied a purchase to challenge the prohibition if they believe they were wrongly placed on a terror watchlist. But that bill remains stalled in the Senate.
And now the ready availability of guns has become part of the emerging debate over accepting Syrian refugees. Texas State Rep. Tony Dale, a Republican, sent letters to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. John Cornyn (PDF), also Republicans, warning that they should not allow refugees to settle in the state because the documentation they would be granted would allow the immigrants to gain employment, enter federal buildings, board commercial aircraft and, as Dale makes special note of in light of the Paris attacks, purchase firearms.
“Can you imagine a scenario were [sic] a refugees [sic] is admitted to the United States ... obtains a drivers license and purchases a weapon and executes an attack?” Dale wrote.
There is an additional legislative gap that seems applicable. The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, more commonly known as the Assault Weapons Ban, expired in 2004. Repeated attempts to revive it have been met with staunch opposition from the NRA similar to the pushback on terrorism legislation. The sale and manufacture of the AK-47-style weapons used in the Paris attacks were specifically prohibited by this law.
Flaws in the FBI’s terrorism watchlists — which have reportedly grown to include more than 700,000 people — are infamous. Many on the lists turn out to be distant relatives or acquaintances with no direct ties to terrorist groups. Some are just unlucky enough to have a similar name to other suspects. It is problems like this that have alarmed civil libertarians and fueled firearms advocates’ objections to linking a watchlist with gun ownership.
But inclusion on the FBI terrorism list already blocks far more mundane activities than weapons purchase. And the vast majority — 76 percent — of gun owners (including 71 percent of NRA members) supports prohibitions on firearms purchases by people on the federal terrorism watchlist, according to a survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz.
“After September 11th, common sense dictates that the federal government stop gun sales to suspects on the terrorist watch list,” said Rep. King in a statement coinciding with the introduction of his legislation in February. After the Paris attacks, many are likely to feel that sense even more strongly.