As lawmakers on Capitol Hill fought over “no fly, no buy” gun restrictions for the fourth day in a row, an influential member of the House Intelligence Committee suggested Thursday that President Barack Obama on his own could give the FBI the ability to monitor terrorism suspects’ gun purchases even if they are no longer on government-maintained watch lists.
In a letter to the president, Rep. Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said Obama should consider giving FBI agents the option of “tagging” people previously investigated for terrorism-related activity in FBI files so that if they tried to buy weapons, internal alerts would be issued.
An FBI agent could then investigate why the former suspect had made the purchase.
Such a system might have affected Omar Mateen’s ability to carry out Sunday’s attack in Orlando, which left 49 people dead. Mateen had been removed from the terrorist watch list after a 10-month FBI investigation and was not flagged when he bought the weapons used in the attack in early June.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Schiff’s office said the proposed expansion of FBI authority had been discussed with the White House before the congressman sent the letter and that Schiff thought the president could take the action without Congress’ agreement.
“As ISIS exhorts its sympathizers and followers to carry out attacks in the United States, we must do more to prevent easy access to powerful firearms by those who would use them to murder Americans as quickly as possible,” Schiff said in the letter, referring to the Islamic State by an acronym. Mateen told Orlando police during Sunday’s rampage that he was an Islamic State sympathizer. No evidence of a direct link to the group has surfaced, however.
During the period when he was under FBI scrutiny, Mateen would have been listed in the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database as a known or suspected terrorist. That status would have come up during a background check and triggered a 72-hour waiting period before the weapons purchase, Schiff said.
But because the FBI had closed the investigation, Mateen was able to buy weapons without attracting any federal attention.
That needs to change, Schiff said.
“In the case of Mateen, such a policy would have meant that the FBI could have learned of his purchase of a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle and a handgun just a week prior to the attack in Orlando,” he said. “Had the agent been so informed, it is possible that additional investigation could have disrupted his plot.”
Being on a government watch list has rarely prevented people from buying weapons. Data made public by the office of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Vice Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., shows that from 2004 to 2015, 2,477 watch-listed individuals sought to buy weapons. They received approval to buy guns more than 90 percent of the time, according to a Government Accountability Office data chart.