By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; 3:09 PM
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told a Senate panel Wednesday that he strongly supports congressional efforts to close a "terror gap" in the nation's gun laws, which currently allow persons on a federal terrorist watch list to buy guns and explosives legally in the United States.
Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Committee in the wake of the latest alleged terrorist plot against his city, Bloomberg (I) pointed to a new Government Accountability Office report showing that individuals on the terrorist watch list were able to buy firearms and explosives from licensed U.S. dealers 1,119 times over the past six years.
"That is a serious and dangerous breach of national security," Bloomberg testified. The FBI should have the authority to block such sales, "but right now, they don't," he said. "It is time to close this 'terror gap' in our gun laws."
Also testifying at the hearing, which was scheduled long before Saturday night's attempted car bombing in Times Square, were New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) and senior officials from the FBI, GAO and the Los Angeles Police Department.
According to the GAO report released Wednesday, FBI data show that individuals on the government's terrorist watch list were involved in firearms or explosives background checks 1,228 times from February 2004 through February 2010. Of those transactions, 1,119, or about 91 percent, "were allowed to proceed because no prohibiting information was found -- such as felony convictions, illegal immigrant status, or other disqualifying factors," the GAO's Eileen R. Larence said in prepared testimony.
She said the 1,228 transactions involved about 650 individuals, of whom about 450 engaged in multiple transactions and six were involved in 10 or more.
From March 2009 through February 2010, Larence said, 272 background checks yielded matches to persons on the terrorist watch list, one of whom was purchasing explosives. Several others were listed not only in the FBI's Known or Suspected Terrorist File but were also on the Transportation Security Administration's no-fly list, she said.
"According to FBI officials, all of these transactions were allowed to proceed because the background checks revealed no prohibiting information under current law," Larence testified.
Bloomberg said a bipartisan coalition of 500 mayors supports legislation that would allow the U.S. attorney general to bar such purchases. He said the group also wants Congress to close another loophole that allows people to buy firearms at gun shows with no background checks at all.
"It's just common sense to give the FBI authority to keep terror suspects from buying guns and explosives," he said.
"Convicted felons, domestic abusers and the mentally ill are forbidden from buying guns and explosives, but nothing in our laws keeps fanatics on the terror watch list from purchasing guns and explosives," Lautenberg said in his prepared testimony. "That is hard to believe -- yet, unfortunately, it is true."
He said he and King have introduced nearly identical bills in the Senate and House to address the issue.
King said his legislation gives the attorney general authority to "deny the sale, delivery or transfer of firearms or issuance of permits" to persons on the terrorist watch list, as well as the power to "revoke any firearm licenses of known or suspected terrorists." He said it also sets guidelines for challenging the attorney general's decisions.
Speaking against the proposed legislation at the hearing was Aaron Titus, privacy director of a Washington-based group called the Liberty Coalition. He said the group "takes no official position on 'gun control' per se," but that "we are very alarmed at legislative attempts, though well-intentioned, which strip away individual constitutional protections."
He said in prepared testimony that the bills in question "strip citizens of their enumerated constitutional right to bear arms without any meaningful due process and create a national firearms registry."
The committee "should not spend time debating whether to take away terrorists' guns, bombs, cell phones, cars or other instruments of terrorism," Titus said. "If a person is a dangerous terrorist, then he should be thrown in jail." He added, however, that the proposed Senate legislation "is based on the assumption that all individuals on terrorist watch lists are terrorists," an assumption he argued is impossible to check.