Monday, April 04, 2005

AN INSECURE NATION: Guns for Terrorists

The New York Times
April 4, 2005
Guns for Terrorists

If a background check shows that you are an undocumented immigrant, federal law bars you from buying a gun. If the same check shows that you have ties to Al Qaeda, you are free to buy an AK-47. That is the absurd state of the nation's gun laws, and a recent government report revealed that terrorist suspects are taking advantage of it. There are a few promising signs, however, that the federal government is considering injecting some sanity into policies on terror suspects and guns.

The Government Accountability Office examined F.B.I. and state background checks for gun sales during a five-month period last year. It found 44 checks in which the prospective buyer turned up on a government terrorist watch list. A few of these prospective buyers were denied guns for other disqualifying factors, like a felony conviction or illegal immigration status. But 35 of the 44 people on the watch lists were able to buy guns.

The encouraging news is that the G.A.O. report may be prodding Washington to act. The F.B.I. director, Robert Mueller III, has announced that he is forming a study group to review gun sales to terror suspects. In a letter to Senator Frank Lautenberg, the New Jersey Democrat, Mr. Mueller said that the new working group would review the national background check system in light of the report. We hope this group will take a strong stand in favor of changes in the law to deny guns to terror suspects.

In the meantime, Senator Lautenberg is pushing for important reforms. He has asked the Justice Department to consider making presence on a terrorist watch list a disqualifying factor for gun purchases. And he wants to force gun sellers to keep better records. Under a recent law, records of gun purchases must be destroyed after 24 hours, eliminating important information for law enforcement. Senator Lautenberg wants to require that these records be kept for at least 10 years for buyers on terrorist watch lists.

Keeping terror suspects from buying guns seems like an issue the entire nation can rally around. But the National Rifle Association is, as usual, fighting even the most reasonable regulation of gun purchases. After the G.A.O. report came out, Wayne LaPierre, the N.R.A.'s executive vice president, took to the airwaves to reiterate his group's commitment to ensuring that every citizen has access to guns, and to cast doubt on the reliability of terrorist watch lists.

Unfortunately, the N.R.A. - rather than the national interest - is too often the driving force on gun policy in Congress, particularly since last November's election. Even after the G.A.O.'s disturbing revelations, the Senate has continued its work on a dangerous bill to insulate manufacturers and sellers from liability when guns harm people. If it passes, as seems increasingly likely, it will remove any fear a seller might have of being held legally responsible if he provides a gun used in a terrorist attack.