More than 90 percent of known or suspected terrorists who’ve attempted to buy weapons since 2004 have passed a background check and been approved for the purchase, new government statistics show.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calf., a proponent of tougher gun-buying restrictions on suspected terrorists, released the statistics late Tuesday as the country is struggling to understand how Omar Mateen, 29, who killed 49 people Sunday at a gay nightclub in Orlando, was able to buy weapons – even though he was on the FBI’s terrorist watch list and had been investigated twice by FBI agents for possible terrorism links.
The data, compiled by the Government Accountability Office, show that between 2004 and 2015, 2,477 individuals on the watch list applied to purchase weapons. Of those, 2,265 were approved – more than 91 percent.
That rate was more than 95 percent last year, according to the data, which showed that between January 2015 and December “individuals on the terrorist watch list were involved in firearm-related background checks 244 times.” Only 21 of those were denied. The other 233 were cleared through FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System to make the purchases.
Feinstein released the data at the height of a dramatic political battle in Congress over gun sales legislation. Feinstein, the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has renewed her push for blocking gun sales to suspected terrorists in the aftermath of the nightclub shooting. The GAO provided the data to Feinstein on March 7, according to correspondence she released.
Democrats and Republicans are badly split over what steps should be taken to respond to the Orlando attack, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
Separately, all 16 Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee have signed a letter pressing Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, to consider legislation to reinstate a lapsed ban on automatic assault weapons, and to tighten legal loopholes that allowed the assailants in the mass shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino, Ca., to buy semi-automatic weapons.
“Make no mistake about it: our nation is under attack,” said the letter, led by ranking Democrat John Conyers of Michigan. “We are under attack by the scourge of gun violence – on our streets and in our homes, on a daily basis.”
They said Goodlatte has not held any congressional hearings despite mass shootings in Tucson, Aurora, Co., Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Newtown, Connecticut, San Bernardino, California.
The Democrats also called for action to eliminate a loophole allowing gun owners to privately sell firearms without federal background checks like those required of dealers. They also seek to bar dealers from transferring firearms before a background check has been completed and to prohibit the sale of guns to a variety of individuals, including people on the terror watch list, who’ve been convicted of hate crimes or stalking, and people with a history of domestic violence.
But limitations on gun purchases by people on the terrorist watch list are particularly controversial, with many guns rights advocates and civil liberties proponents arguing that there is little known about how someone can be added to the list. Winning removal from the list is a long and arduous process.
The American Civil Liberties Union, a major critic of the watch list system, says on its website that “tens of thousands of names” have been placed on government watch lists “without an adequate factual basis.”
The ACLU says that in addition to the FBI, at least five other government agencies maintain watch lists.
Greg Gordon in Washington contributed to this report.
Maggie Ybarra, 202-383-6048 @MolotovFlicker