Terror watch list takes center stage among gun-control proposals

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is proposing legislation that would block gun sales to individuals on the terror watch list.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is proposing legislation that would block gun sales to individuals on the terror watch list. AP

A 4-year-old Northern California child found himself on the terrorist watch list that’s now at the center of the congressional gun-control debate.

Identified as Baby Doe in court filings, the boy was one of more than 1 million people added to the federal government’s secret database that’s grown by leaps and bounds since it was established by the Bush administration in 2003.

This is the same watch list that many Democrats want to use to screen out potential gun buyers. The possibility of error alarms civil libertarians and Second Amendment activists alike as Congress considers the proposal, which is popularly marketed as “no-fly, no-buy.”

“If it’s too dangerous for you to board an airplane, it’s too dangerous for you to buy a gun,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday.

The bill written by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would allow the Justice Department to block gun sales to watch-listed individuals, whom she called “known or suspected terrorists,” if authorities have a “reasonable belief that the weapon would be used in connection with terrorism.”

Democrats hope to attach the measure to whatever legislation comes their way. The Senate is currently considering legislation to fund the Commerce, State and Justice departments, and efforts are anticipated later this week or next week to attach amendments.

The president believes that our country is safer if there are laws that prevent individuals who are on the no-fly list from being able to buy a gun. I think that's a pretty common-sense proposition.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest

The odds are long for passage, despite the public outcry after Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard who was once on the watch list, killed 49 people in an attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando. Republicans previously have opposed such legislation, and it takes 60 votes to stop a filibuster; Democrats control only 46 seats.

But there are signs that opponents might be open to compromise. The National Rifle Association on Wednesday allowed that “anyone on a terror watch list who tries to buy a gun should be thoroughly investigated by the FBI and the sale delayed while the investigation is ongoing.”

In a statement, Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action also called for revising the way the watch-list system works. “At the same time, due process protections should be put in place that allow law-abiding Americans who are wrongly put on a watch list to be removed,” the statement said.

Anyone on a terror watch list who tries to buy a gun should be thoroughly investigated by the FBI and the sale delayed while the investigation is ongoing.

NRA statement

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also said he was “open” to ideas to prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns, though he didn’t endorse the Democratic push to bar people on the watch list from buying weapons. “Our suspicion is this is basically a politically motivated effort,” he said.

“Nobody wants terrorists to have firearms,” McConnell said. “We open to serious suggestions from the experts as to what we might be able to do to be helpful.”

Democrats acknowledge that their strategy largely is to wear down Republicans. They’re considering into-the-night talkathons highlighting the issue and will keep pounding away at GOP ties to the NRA, which has long driven opposition to any further limits on gun sales.

“We’ll win, sooner or later,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “We’ll keep trying. We’re not giving up.”

The watch list, formally called the Terrorist Screening Database, combines several sources, and it’s much bigger than the formal no-fly list.

About 1.1 million names, representing about 400,000 individuals, were included on what’s formally called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment as of December 2013, according to the National Counterterrorism Center. About 25,000 were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

This TIDE database encompasses those suspected of involvement in international terrorism.

Separately, the FBI provides names to the agency’s Terrorist Screening Center of those suspected of involvement in domestic terrorism. Together, these domestic and international suspects make up the watch list.

In 2013, authorities proposed adding 468,749 names to the list of known or suspected terrorists. Nearly 99 percent of the proposed names made the list, officials disclosed in a court filing earlier this year.

Critics say the very size of the list makes its accuracy suspect.

“What we have today is a massive watch listing system based on vague and over broad criteria that risks stigmatizing hundreds of thousands of people, including Americans, as known or suspected terrorists based on secret evidence and without a meaningful process to challenge government error and clear their names,” said Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project.

1.1 million Number of names on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment list of December 2013.

The Transportation Security Administration’s no-fly list, in turn, is a subset of this larger watch list. Those listed are not permitted to board a U.S. airline, or any flight that lands or departs from U.S. territory or flies over U.S. airspace. Others are identified for tighter screening.

The non-partisan Congressional Research Service, citing news accounts, reported last year that about 47,000 people were estimated to be on the no-fly list.

“The entire federal government is leaning very far forward in putting people on lists,” Russell E. Travers, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a Senate panel in March 2010, adding that the watch list “will get even bigger.”

Circumstances sometimes change. An average of about 16,500 names are removed annually after being determined they no longer meet the inclusion criteria. Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in Orlando last weekend, was once on the watch list but was removed after a 10-month FBI investigation found no evidence of a connection to terrorism.

Mistakes, or otherwise inexplicable events, also sometimes happen.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., was once mistaken for an Irish Republican Army activist and denied the right to board a plane. Officials initially denied him the right to remove his name from the list, which made him feel “completely helpless,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

The experience left him feeling strongly about protecting the constitutional rights as Americans.

“The question becomes if an individual’s Second Amendment rights can be withdrawn in such a matter, then what’s to become of his other rights?” he said. “I mean, terrorists also publish things. Are an American’s right to freedom of speech to be withdrawn by a bureaucratic whim? Terrorists own things. Are Fifth Amendment rights to be secure in our property to be withdrawn in the same manner?”

Mariam Jukaku, cq likewise, is a 32-year-old Muslim and U.S. citizen living in California’s Alameda County, east of San Francisco. In March 2012, she says she was “subjected to extensive searches, pat downs and chemical testing” while attempting to board a plane in Detroit after her pass was stamped with a special designation

She was not told why her name was on the watch list, though she’s now apparently off it.

“Ms. Jukaku’s nomination to the federal watch list was based solely on a hunch,” her attorneys asserted in a legal filing.

Jukaku, the toddler called Baby Doe, who also lived in Alameda County, and others are part of a class-action lawsuit filed in Virginia last April by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and allied attorneys.

Six years ago, the ACLU filed its own challenge to the no-fly list on behalf of individuals including Nagib Ali Ghaleb, a San Francisco janitor in his early 30s who was reportedly blocked from boarding a U.S.-bound plane in Yemen because of his inclusion on the no-fly list.

This case is still grinding along in federal court in Oregon.

Being on the watch list has to date not prevented many people from buying guns. Data provided to Sen. Feinstein’s office by the Government Accountability Office show that from 2004 to 2015, 2,477 watch-listed individuals had sought to buy weapons. They were allowed to more than 90 percent of the time.

FBI Director James Comey talked about the bureau's initial investigation of Omar Mateen, who later killed at least 49 people at Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida. He said the gunman showed "strong indications of radicalization" before the mass

Lesley Clark contributed to this report.