The federal government uses the terrorist watchlist to monitor potentially violent individuals or groups within the United States. People whose names have been placed on the list are blocked from certain actions that could put others at risk, such as air travel—yet people on the watchlist are still not prohibited from purchasing or possessing guns.

Background

High profile shootings at an army base in Fort Hood, TX, and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL, are just a few of the many examples of domestic terrorists using firearms in deadly attacks. In both of these incidents, the perpetrators were on the radar of the federal government as potential terrorists, yet still were able to legally purchase firearms. While the terrorist watchlist generally does not include many individuals whose bigotry may lead them to commit violent hate crimes, such as white supremacists, as long as our government deems the individuals on the terrorist watchlist too dangerous to fly, they should not be allowed to purchase and possess deadly weapons.

Data shows that domestic terrorist attacks involving firearms are on the rise across the United States.

  • In recent years, guns have been used in the majority of deadly terrorist attacks on US soil, with some analyses showing that as many as 85% of people murdered by terrorists in the U.S. were killed with guns.1
  • A higher proportion of US terror attacks are committed with firearms compared to other countries.2

Despite the clear risks of firearms in the hands of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers, federal law does not bar people on the terrorist watchlist from buying guns. Accordingly, even when someone with known or suspected terrorist ties undergoes a background check before purchasing a gun, they are almost always allowed to acquire the firearm. 

  • Firearm sales and transfers proceed in more than 91% of cases where known or suspected terrorists on the terror watchlist undergo firearm background checks.3
  • In fact, between 2004 and 2015, at least 2,265 individuals on the terror watchlist were able to obtain firearms after passing a background check.4

Terrorist organizations are aware of the loopholes in our gun laws—and they actively encourage sympathizers to exploit them.

  • Since the September 11 attacks, there has been increased monitoring of the use of explosives and the trade of materials that can be turned into explosives, but similar steps have not been taken to keep firearms out of the hands of terrorists.5
  • Terrorist sympathizers are encouraged to take advantage of this loophole. in 2011, the now-deceased American al-Qaeda operative Adam Gadahn released a video describing how “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms” and instigating supporters to use these weapons in attacks.6

The vast majority of Americans, including the vast majority of gun owners, support closing this dangerous loophole. A 2018 poll found that 86% of Democrats and 83% of Republicans support barring people on the terror watchlist from purchasing firearms.7

Summary of Federal Law

Federal law requires licensed firearms dealers to initiate a background check on gun purchasers. The federal and state agencies that conduct these background checks are only authorized to deny the sale of a gun to a person if the person is legally ineligible to purchase or possess a firearm.8

The nine groups of people that are deemed ineligible by current federal law to own firearms include felons, domestic abusers, and individuals who have been deemed mentally ill9—but federal law does not currently prohibit individuals on the terrorist watchlist from passing a background check and legally buying guns.

While the terrorist watchlist includes more than 700,000 people, about 95% are foreign nationals, making them ineligible to buy a gun in the United States regardless of their status on the watchlist.10 Still, between February 2004 and December 2014, individuals on the terror watchlist were able to buy firearms 2,043 times, due to the federal government’s failure to take legal action to close the watchlist loophole.11 In 2015 alone, known or suspected terrorists underwent background checks to purchase firearms 244 times—and 223 of those transactions, or 91%, were allowed to proceed.12

Support for closing the terror gap is widespread and bipartisan, and those who have supported closing this loophole include President George W. Bush, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, former New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and the International Association of Police Chiefs.13

Summary of State Law

Despite the clear benefit in closing the terror gap, virtually no states have enacted legislation regarding the terrorist watchlist.

New Jersey enacted a law in 2013 that prohibits issuing gun purchase permits to those on the terrorist watchlist.14 The New Jersey State Police has confirmed that people on the watchlist have been denied guns based on this state law.15

Key Legislative Elements

The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered. A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.

  • State law prohibits gun sales or transfers to, and gun purchases by, individuals on the terrorist watchlist maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Notes
  1. Carl Bialik, “Terrorists are Turning to Guns More Often in US Attacks,” FiveThirtyEight, June 12, 2016, https://53eig.ht/2QymwzK. ⤴︎
  2. Robert A. Tessler, et al., “Use of Firearms in Terrorist Attacks: Differences Between the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand,” JAMA Internal Medicine 177, no. 12 (2017): 1865–1868. ⤴︎
  3. Diana C. Maurer, “Update on Firearm and Explosives Background Checks Involving Terrorist Watchlist Records,” United States Government Accountability Office, March 7, 2016, https://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/f/5/f53c4195-430d-4d8d-acde-1ec53e97d0fa/8B0B32645FB7DD74C275F4E0A9B06F96.gao-nics-watchlist-2016-update.pdf. ⤴︎
  4. ⤴︎
  5. Carl Bialik, “Terrorists are Turning to Guns More Often in US Attacks,” FiveThirtyEight, June 12, 2016, https://53eig.ht/2QymwzK. ⤴︎
  6. Igor Volsky, “How Terrorist Sympathizers Exploit America’s Gun Laws,” ThinkProgress, Dec. 4, 2015, https://thinkprogress.org/how-terrorist-sympathizers-exploit-americas-gun-laws-53009b7adffc#.styxsa1s4. ⤴︎
  7. John Gramlich, “7 Facts About Guns in the US,” Pew Research Center, December 27, 2018, https://pewrsr.ch/2HHZxQ5. ⤴︎
  8. 18 U.S.C. § 922(t). ⤴︎
  9. 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). ⤴︎
  10. Eugene Kiely, “Rubio Wrong on Terrorist List,” Factcheck.org, Dec. 7, 2015, http://www.factcheck.org/2015/12/rubio-on-terrorist-watchlist. ⤴︎
  11. Christopher Ingraham, “From 2004 to 2014, over 2,000 Terror Suspects Legally Purchased Guns in the United States,” Washington Post, Nov. 16, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/16/why-the-nra-opposed-laws-to-prevent-suspected-terrorists-from-buying-guns. ⤴︎
  12. Eric Bradner, “9-in-10 on terror watch list who sought guns were approved in 2015,” CNN, June 14, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/14/politics/terrorist-watch-list-91-percent-approved-guns/index.html. ⤴︎
  13. Americans for Responsible Solutions, “Capt. Mark Kelly Calls on The Senate to Close the Terror Gap, Help Keep Guns Out of The Hands of Terror Suspects, Giffords, June 15, 2016, http://americansforresponsiblesolutions.org/2016/06/15/terror-gap. ⤴︎
  14. N.J. Stat. § 2C:58-3(c)(9), as amended by 2012 N.J. A.N. 3687. ⤴︎
  15. Mark Pazniokas, “N.J. already using U.S. watch lists to screen gun buyers,” Connecticut Mirror, Dec. 11, 2015, http://ctmirror.org/2015/12/11/n-j-already-using-u-s-watch-lists-to-screen-gun-buyers. ⤴︎