Message to Rahm Emanuel: On Guns and Terror, If Not Now, When?

I have a modest suggestion for the President. In the State of the Union address, demonstrate that national security trumps fear of the gun lobby.
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A U.S. soldier, under investigation by the FBI for his communications with a radical Yemeni cleric tied to al-Qaida, uses a gun to kill thirteen and wound thirty-eight at Fort Hood, one of our nation's leading military bases. A Nigerian terrorist with ties to the same radical cleric comes close to detonating a bomb on a U.S. airliner about to land in Detroit, stopped only by the bravery of a passenger. As to the airline bomber, President Obama acknowledged that "the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way." The President undeniably is on the defensive, as his opponents do their best to paint him as "soft on terror."

I have a modest suggestion for the President. In the State of the Union address, demonstrate that national security trumps fear of the gun lobby.

Make no mistake about it, the gun lobby's influence has made the war against terrorists harder to fight.

First, during the Bush Administration, Congress responded to the gun lobby's paranoia about "gun registration" by enacting a requirement - as part of the infamous Tiahrt Amendments named for their sponsor Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) - mandating that records of Brady Law background checks on approved purchasers be destroyed within 24 hours of the purchase. During the Clinton years, these records were preserved for 90 days, which allowed auditing of the background check system to determine if some illegal gun buyers had slipped through the cracks. The National Rifle Association failed in its lawsuit challenging the temporary retention of the records as an illegal "gun registry"; indeed, such a registry was precluded by the Brady Act itself, which mandated the destruction of the records, but did not say when that had to occur.

In the case of Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, the Tiahrt requirement meant that investigators had no way of knowing a rather material piece of information - that Hasan had purchased a gun. Because Hasan had no disqualifying record that would have blocked his purchase, the FBI's record of his purchase disappeared after 24 hours. (The only other federal record of his purchase - the form he would have filled out at the gun shop - by law must remain at the gun shop, yet another irrational restriction on gun records that has its origins in gun lobby paranoia about "registration.") According to former FBI agent Brady Garrett, "The piece of information about the gun could have been critical." Earlier this year, the Obama Administration supported some changes to the Tiahrt Amendments, but proposed no change in the record destruction provision.

Second, due to gun lobby opposition, Congress has done nothing to close the so-called "terror gap" in federal gun laws. Our gun laws are so weak that individuals who have close ties to terrorist groups can be denied guns only if they have already committed a felony, or fall into another of the limited categories of prohibited buyers. The result is a shocking anomaly: a person on the terrorist watch list can be barred from getting on airplanes, but not barred from buying as many guns as he wants. According to the Government Accountability Office, in the five years ending in February of last year, 865 individuals on the terrorist watch list were able to buy guns at licensed gun dealers. As we contemplate why Nidal Hasan and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the airline bomber, were not on the terrorist watch list, let us not overlook the absurdity that, under current law, their inclusion on the list would not have disqualified them from buying 20 assault rifles from a gun shop.

Repealing the Tiahrt record destruction requirement and closing the "terror gap" are not only good policy; for the Obama Administration, they are also good politics. The President should challenge those in Congress who are trying to hang the "soft on terror" label on him to demonstrate their own toughness by standing up to the gun lobby in the interest of national security. He should make them choose between pandering to the paranoia of the gun extremists and preventing terrorists from arming themselves. Keep in mind that a recent survey by Frank Luntz - that most Republican of pollsters - found that 82% of NRA members support "prohibiting persons on the terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns." On this issue, the NRA's extremist leadership is hopelessly out of touch with its membership.

We saw multiple U.S. Senators with "A" ratings from the NRA defy the gun lobby to vote to confirm Justice Sotomayor. Which NRA supporters in Congress are willing to vote to allow suspected terrorists to buy guns?

On the politics, don't take my word for it. Listen to Rahm Emanuel who, slightly more than two years ago, addressed a Brady Center gathering with these words:

"The most important thing we can do, and we've got to make this a number one issue . . . if you are on the no-fly list . . . you cannot buy a handgun in America . . . As my old boss used to say, give me that vote, and throw me into that briar patch, and I'll make politics out of that every day, because if it's between that terrorist list and the NRA, I know where America is going to be every time and they're going to make the right choice . . . ."

Rahm, you were right then. And you can do something about it now. Sometimes, on certain issues, the policy and the politics are perfectly aligned. On the issue of guns and terror, that time is now.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.

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