Leading Senate Democrats are reviving a measure to expand gun control restrictions to cover foreign nationals and U.S. citizens who are on the terror watchlist following last weekend’s Paris attacks.
The leading advocate of the measure is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence panel.
She wants to prevent anyone on the terror watchlist from buying a firearm or an explosive while traveling in the United States. It’s an effort she picked up from the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D), who introduced the measure multiple times while in the Senate.
“They don’t have to bring it with them, they can buy it once they get here,” Feinstein declared. “If you’re too dangerous to board a plane, you’re too dangerous to buy a gun.”
The idea has always faced stiff opposition from the National Rifle Association and lawmakers who share the NRA’s position. The NRA has argued that targeting those on the terror watchlist would unfairly infringe on the rights of U.S. citizens whose names were mistakenly included on the lists.
Any move to restrict gun rights is likely to spark serious pushback from pro-gun lawmakers, especially as the 2016 elections near (despite a 2012 poll showing gun owners overwhelmingly opposed to suspected terrorists purchasing guns). Previous attempts to restrict gun rights for American citizens have gone nowhere even after the mass shootings in places like Roseburg, Ore.; Charleston, S.C.; and Newtown, Conn.
But Senate Democrats argue there are loopholes governing the programs under which foreign nationals can visit the U.S. that could increase the likelihood of a terror attack in this country. They cite statistics from a Government Accountability Office report that found that between 2004 and 2014, 2,043 individuals whose names appeared on terror watchlists were able to purchase guns in this country – 91 percent of those who tried.
“A foreign national who enters the United States under the visa waiver program can legally purchase a handgun or assault rifle here,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). “The law blocks visa holders from other countries from buying these guns, but not travelers from the 38 visa waiver countries.”
“It’s outrageous that dangerous individuals who are known terrorists can waltz into a gun show and buy any weapon they want,” added Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Democrats are pushing for consideration of the gun control measure and another Feinstein-driven proposal to stiffen the security of the visa waiver program, which she is expected to introduce along with Republican co-sponsor Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) shortly after Thanksgiving.
The visa waiver program allows visitors holding a passport from any of 38 approved countries to come to the U.S. with minimal screening. Feinstein calls it “the soft underbelly of our national security policies,” as almost 20 million tourists and business travelers take advantage annually of the program.
Leading Senate Democrats see strengthening the waiver program and preventing suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms and explosives as a natural pair.
Feinstein’s effort fits in with a campaign to push for more gun control laws launched by Democrats earlier this fall. Democrats did not reference that campaign during a press conference Thursday, presenting the move instead as a no-brainer counter-terrorism measure with language that, in a different form, once had the backing of former president George W. Bush’s Justice Department, they said.
Thus far, the measure has no Senate Republican support. And in the House, where lawmakers on Thursday passed a bill to “pause” refugee admissions from Syria and Iraq, the lead sponsor of similar legislation says nobody else in his party is very interested in the measure.
“To be honest with you, I don’t see much enthusiasm on the Republican side,” lead sponsor Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said on Thursday, musing that while he intended to push the bill again, he probably wouldn’t before the beginning of the new year. “It’s one battle at a time.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) deferred a question on additional gun restrictions to a new task force of committee chairman considering ways to enhance homeland security and counter-terror measures in the wake of the Paris attacks. He didn’t comment on the gun control proposals specifically.
In the meantime, House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said Wednesday that the task force, of which he is a member, would likely propose legislation to restrict the visa waiver program.
Feinstein’s expected proposal to change the waiver program would prevent individuals who have traveled to Syria or Iraq in the last five years from coming to the U.S. under it. To visit, they would have to get a visa through the normal process including an in-person interview. Feinstein said her measure will also require travelers to submit biometric data, and have a passport with an E-chip storing that data to better protect against individuals traveling under false identities.
House Democrats weren’t familiar with the specifics of Feinstein’s bill and had mixed thoughts about how effective it would be.
“I would certainly be supportive of efforts to provide additional protection in the visa waiver program,” House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said.
“Dianne Feinstein has never liked the visa waiver program,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee’s Immigration and Border Security subcommittee.
Lofgren said that while the visa waiver program should be reviewed, she’s not certain that Feinstein’s proposal will work.
“Taking a look at who were the terrorists in Paris, it’s not at all clear that they all went to Iraq and Syria,” Lofgren added. “So simplistic approaches are not what people elected us to do. They elected us to keep their safety foremost in mind and to be smart not hysterical.”