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GAO Cites Gun Sales to Those on Watch List

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

People named on the government's terrorism watch list have successfully purchased firearms hundreds of times since 2004, government investigators reported yesterday. In one case, a known or suspected terrorist was able to obtain an explosives license, the Government Accountability Office reported.

U.S. lawmakers requested the audit to show how people on the watch list can be stopped from boarding airplanes but not from buying guns. Under federal law, licensed firearms dealers must request an FBI background check for each buyer but cannot legally stop a purchase solely because someone is on the watch list. The study found that people on the list purchased firearms 865 times in 963 attempts over a five-year period ending in February.

Those who were denied gun purchases were disqualified for other reasons, such as a felony conviction, a drug violation or being an illegal immigrant.

Citing a "terror gap," Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) released the study, and Lautenberg introduced legislation yesterday to give the U.S. attorney general authority to stop the sale of guns or explosives to terrorists.

"The special interest gun lobby has so twisted our nation's laws that the rights of terrorists are placed above the safety of everyday Americans," Lautenberg said in a written statement. "The current law simply defies common sense."

Chris W. Cox, the National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist, said that his group opposes terrorists having access to firearms but that many people are placed on the watch list erroneously. The NRA cited a Justice Department inspector general's report in March that found that about 24,000 of 400,000 people on the list -- or about 6 percent -- were named based on outdated or irrelevant information in FBI files, sometimes after their cases had been closed.

"Law-abiding Americans should not be treated like terrorists," Cox said in a written statement. "To deny law-abiding people due process and their Second Amendment rights based on a secret list is not how we do things in America."

In 2005, the GAO reported that people on the watch list were able to buy weapons in 35 of 44 attempts between February and June 2004.

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said the department had no comment on the GAO audit, which was first reported by the New York Times. Boyd added: "We're reviewing the [Lautenberg] bill."

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