Terrorists who want to buy guns have friends on Capitol Hill

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, May 6, 2010; A02

Is the NRA a terrorist organization?

By George W. Bush's standard -- you're either with us or against us in the fight against terrorism -- NRA chief Wayne LaPierre should be just a few frequent-flier miles short of a free ticket to Gitmo right about now. Seems he and the rest of the gun lobby are fighting for terrorists' right to buy firearms.

The Bush administration urged Congress to pass a law barring people on the terrorist watch list from buying explosives and guns. The gun lobby objected. Now the Obama administration is urging Congress to pass the same legislation, and the gun lobby continues to object.

On Wednesday, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, using the star power they acquired in the apprehension of the Times Square bomb suspect, came to Capitol Hill to plead for Congress to change the absurdity in the law that keeps those with alleged terrorist ties off airplanes but enables them to legally buy guns and explosives.

The New Yorkers' case was strengthened by the news that the Times Square suspect bought a gun in Connecticut as he set his plot in motion and had the gun with him when he drove to the airport Monday.

"At a time when the threat of terrorism is still very real, as we in New York City know all too well," Bloomberg told a Senate committee, "I think it's imperative that Congress close this terror gap in our gun laws and close it quickly."

"Failure to do so places this country at even greater risk," seconded the commissioner.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who has joined the cause, warned that if a terrorist uses a gun that he buys legally, "there would be blood on our hands."

The hearing, before Joe Lieberman's homeland security panel, provided a rare chance for gun-control advocates to take the offensive in a debate that has mostly gone against them in recent years. More broadly, the issue allowed Democrats to exploit the war on terrorism in a way Republicans have been doing for years.

The bill to close the gun loophole isn't on the radar of Democratic leaders, making it unlikely that it will reach the Senate floor. Still, Lieberman's hearing was fascinating because it forced the pro-gun crowd to take their philosophy to its logical extreme: Are they so absolute about the Second Amendment that they'd risk national security by fighting for the right of would-be terrorists to own guns? Alarmingly, they are.

The NRA, restating its opposition to the bill a few months ago, said it is all part of a conspiracy by "politicians who hate the Second Amendment" and who "think that more gun owners can be placed on the list over time." At Wednesday's hearing, a representative of the conservative Liberty Coalition made a similar argument: "The bill should be titled the Gun Owners Are Probably All Terrorists Act."

Faced with a choice between conspiracy theories and the testimony of the heroes of Times Square, it was no surprise that pro-gun Republican senators on the committee such as Tom Coburn (Okla.), John McCain (Ariz.) and John Ensign (Nev.) declined to participate in the hearing. Also taking a pass was pro-gun Democrat Jon Tester (Mont.).

The lone pro-gun lawmaker to engage in the fight was the fearless Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who rolled his eyes and shook his head when Lieberman got the NYPD's Kelly to agree that the purchase of a gun could suggest that a terrorist "is about to go operational."

"I'm not so sure this is the right solution," Graham said, concerned that those on the terrorist watch list might be denied their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

"If society decides that these people are too dangerous to get on an airplane with other people, then it's probably appropriate to look very hard before you let them buy a gun," countered Bloomberg.

"But we're talking about a constitutional right here," Graham went on. He then changed the subject, pretending the discussion was about a general ban on handguns. "The NRA -- " he began, then rephrased. "Some people believe banning handguns is the right answer to the gun violence problem. I'm not in that camp."

Graham felt the need to assure the witnesses that he isn't soft on terrorism: "I am all into national security. . . . Please understand that I feel differently not because I care less about terrorism."

But Lieberman wasn't going to let him get away without a challenge. "I must say I'm troubled by your concerns about this proposal," the chairman said. "I don't see an argument that holds up."

That was particularly so because, as various participants in the hearing had pointed out, the Government Accountability Office found that people on terrorist watch lists had bought guns or explosives from U.S. dealers 1,119 times over the past six years -- largely because the federal government has no power to stop them.

"Can I take a shot at that?" Graham asked when Lieberman finished. After some laughter, he added: "Probably a bad choice of words."

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