Cliff May

Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. But homicidal tendencies are not evenly distributed throughout the general population. Criminals, crazies and terrorists pose a heightened threat. That’s why even those of us who strongly support the Second Amendment also support federal laws prohibiting the most dangerous among us from purchasing or possessing firearms and explosives.

There’s one problem with what I’ve written above: The restrictions in place for convicted felons and the seriously mentally ill do not apply to those on terrorist watch lists. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that individuals on terrorist watch lists tried to buy guns and explosives 1,228 times over a six-year period ending in 2010. In nine of out of ten cases, the FBI could do nothing about it.

President Bush recognized that this was a problem. In 2007, he asked Congress to give the FBI the power to block gun and explosives sales to suspected terrorists. The Justice Department endorsed the concept. Nothing came of it.

Now, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) have drafted H.R.1509/S.34, legislation that attempts to close what they are calling the “Terror Gap.”

Last week, members of the House Judiciary Committee voted on an abbreviated version of the bill: the Quigley amendment to the Patriot Act. It would have given the Justice Department the discretion to block sales to terrorism suspects on a case-by-case basis. It was voted down.

On what basis? Some members worry that restrictions on gun rights for anyone – even suspected terrorists -- will erode the Second Amendment. I’m not unsympathetic to slippery slope arguments but the King/Lautenberg legislation clearly targets only those on terrorism watch lists and it establishes a straightforward procedure so that individuals can challenge and reverse any purchase blocked by the FBI in error. In other words, if someone gets on a terrorist watch list by mistake, his right to bear arms will only be delayed, not denied.

Others who voted against the amendment raised the possibility that preventing an individual from purchasing a firearm will tip him off that he’s on a watch list. But the King/Lautenberg bill lets the FBI decide whether it’s better to stop the purchase or let the suspect go ahead and buy the gun and then see where he goes and what he does.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.