Close the "Terror Gap": Good Policy, Good Politics

Janet Napolitanosaid there is a "new and changing terrorist threat" from "homegrown" terrorists. Given this reality, how long can we tolerate the existing "terror gap" in our laws allowing persons on the terrorist watch list to buy guns and explosives?
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This week's Senate hearing on the continuing terrorist threat to the United States makes it even more evident that our national policy toward terrorists and guns is unsustainable.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Senator Lieberman's Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that there is a "new and changing terrorist threat" from "homegrown" terrorists radicalized in the United States. She also testified that terrorist tactics are evolving, resulting in a "rising threat" from smaller scale attacks using "explosives and small arms." Given this reality, how long can we tolerate the existing "terror gap" in our laws allowing persons on the terrorist watch list to buy guns and explosives?

In a report issued in May, the GAO found that, during the six years ending in February, 2010, individuals on the terrorist watch list tried to buy guns and explosives from licensed dealers 1,228 times and 91% of those transactions were allowed to proceed despite a federally-mandated background check. Why? Because being on the terrorist watch list is not itself a disqualification. Persons engaged in conduct aiding terrorism may be blocked from boarding airplanes, but not from buying as many assault rifles as they can afford.

This is nuts. Even conservative writer Terence Jeffrey, writing in Human Events, recognized that "the only thing stupider than allowing a known foreign terrorist into the United States may be allowing that terrorist to buy guns."

The Bush Administration introduced legislation in 2007 giving the Attorney General authority to block gun sales where a background check reveals that the person is a known or suspected terrorist and there is a reasonable basis for believing that he/she may use a firearm or explosive in connection with terrorism. The bill also provided due process safeguards affording an opportunity to challenge the denial of a sale.

Similar legislation has been introduced in this Congress by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) in the Senate (S.1317) and by Rep. Peter King (R-NY) in the House (H.R. 2159). Almost a year ago, Attorney General Eric Holder voiced support for closing the "terror gap" before the Senate Judiciary Committee. At this week's Homeland Security hearing, when FBI Director Mueller was questioned about it by Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich), Mueller said he would "defer" to the Justice Department on the issue. Hasn't the Department, in the person of the Attorney General, already spoken?

Closing the "terror gap" not only is good policy - it is very good politics. Democrats, particularly in swing suburban and exurban districts, should salivate at the opportunity to force their Republican opponents to explain why they think suspected terrorists should be able to buy guns and explosives.

Of course, the National Rifle Association is vehemently opposed to closing the "terror gap," but this is an issue where gun lobby leaders are far out of step with gun owners, and even their own members. In a survey by Republican message master Frank Luntz, when gun owners were asked whether they support a proposal "prohibiting people on the terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns," a remarkable 82% of self-described NRA members voiced support, while 86% of non-NRA member gun owners did so.

The political potency of this issue already has emerged in the California Senate battle between Republican Carly Fiorina and Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. In an earlier debate with her Republican primary opponents, Fiorina made it clear that she opposes legislation to close the "terror gap," a position she took again in a recent debate with Senator Boxer. "Keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists" has now become a theme of the Boxer campaign.

The Obama Administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress should recognize that they cannot alert the American people to the "rising threat" of domestic terrorists striking with "explosives and small arms," and yet continue our national policy of allowing sales of guns and explosives to suspected terrorists. This is an issue where policy and politics are perfectly aligned. Indeed, the Lautenberg/King bills should be brought to votes in the Senate and House before Congress adjourns.

In this election season, what issue better fits a Democratic narrative of Republican/Tea Party extremism than the "terror gap" question? Republican candidates across the nation should be forced to explain how they can justify allowing fealty to the extremist leadership of the gun lobby to trump national security.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)

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