March 8, 2005
Terror Suspects Buying Firearms, Report Finds
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
WASHINGTON, March 7 - Dozens of terror suspects on federal watch lists were allowed to buy firearms legally in the United States last year, according to a Congressional investigation that points up major vulnerabilities in federal gun laws.
People suspected of being members of a terrorist group are not automatically barred from legally buying a gun, and the investigation, conducted by the Government Accountability Office, indicated that people with clear links to terrorist groups had regularly taken advantage of this gap.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, law enforcement officials and gun control groups have voiced increasing concern about the prospect of a terrorist walking into a gun shop, legally buying an assault rifle or other type of weapon and using it in an attack.
The G.A.O. study offers the first full-scale examination of the possible dangers posed by gaps in the law, Congressional officials said, and it concludes that the Federal Bureau of Investigation "could better manage" its gun-buying records in matching them against lists of suspected terrorists.
F.B.I. officials maintain that they are hamstrung by laws and policies restricting the use of gun-buying records because of concerns over the privacy rights of gun owners.
At least 44 times from February 2004 to June, people whom the F.B.I. regards as known or suspected members of terrorist groups sought permission to buy or carry a gun, the investigation found.
In all but nine cases, the F.B.I. or state authorities who handled the requests allowed the applications to proceed because a check of the would-be buyer found no automatic disqualification like being a felon, an illegal immigrant or someone deemed "mentally defective," the report found.
In the four months after the formal study ended, the authorities received an additional 14 gun applications from terror suspects, and all but 2 of those were cleared to proceed, the investigation found. In all, officials approved 47 of 58 gun applications from terror suspects over a nine-month period last year, it found.
The gun buyers came up as positive matches on a classified internal F.B.I. watch list that includes thousands of terrorist suspects, many of whom are being monitored, trailed or sought for questioning as part of terrorism investigations into Islamic-based, militia-style and other groups, official said. G.A.O. investigators were not given access to the identities of the gun buyers because of those investigations.
The report is to be released on Tuesday, and an advance copy was provided to The New York Times.
Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, who requested the study, plans to introduce legislation to address the problem in part by requiring federal officials to keep records of gun purchases by terror suspects for a minimum of 10 years. Such records must now be destroyed within 24 hours as a result of a change ordered by Congress last year. Mr. Lautenberg maintains that the new policy has hindered terrorism investigations by eliminating the paper trail on gun purchases.
"Destroying these records in 24 hours is senseless and will only help terrorists cover their tracks," Mr. Lautenberg said Monday. "It's an absurd policy."
He blamed what he called the Bush administration's "twisted allegiances" to the National Rifle Association for the situation.
The N.R.A. and gun rights supporters in Congress have fought - successfully, for the most part - to limit the use of the F.B.I.'s national gun-buying database as a tool for law enforcement investigators, saying the database would amount to an illegal registry of gun owners nationwide.
The legal debate over how gun records are used became particularly contentious months after the Sept. 11 attacks, when it was disclosed that the Justice Department and John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, had blocked the F.B.I. from using the gun-buying records to match against some 1,200 suspects who were detained as part of the Sept. 11 investigation. Mr. Ashcroft maintained that using the records in a criminal investigation would violate the federal law that created the system for instant background gun checks, but Justice Department lawyers who reviewed the issue said they saw no such prohibition.
In response to the report, Mr. Lautenberg also plans to ask Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to assess whether people listed on the F.B.I.'s terror watch list should be automatically barred from buying a gun. Such a policy would require a change in federal law.
F.B.I. officials acknowledge shortcomings in the current approach to using gun-buying records in terror cases, but they say they are somewhat constrained by gun laws as established by Congress and interpreted by the Justice Department.
"We're in a tough position," said an F.B.I. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been formally released. "Obviously, we want to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, but we also have to be mindful of privacy and civil rights concerns, and we can't do anything beyond what the law allows us to do."
After initial reluctance from Mr. Ashcroft over Second Amendment concerns, the Justice Department changed its policy in February 2004 to allow the F.B.I. to do more cross-checking between gun-buying records and terrorist intelligence.
Under the new policy, millions of gun applications are run against the F.B.I.'s internal terrorist watch list, and if there is a match, bureau field agents or other counterterrorism personnel are to be contacted to determine whether they have any information about the terror suspect.
In some cases, the extra review allowed the F.B.I. to block a gun purchase by a suspected terrorist that might otherwise have proceeded because of a lag time in putting information into the database, the accountability office's report said.
In one instance last year, follow-up information provided by F.B.I. field agents revealed that someone on a terror watch list was deemed "mentally defective," even though that information had not yet made its way into the gun database. In a second case, field agents disclosed that an applicant was in the country illegally. Both applications were denied.
Even so, the report concluded that the Justice Department should clarify what information could and could not be shared between gun-buying administrators and terrorism investigators. It also concluded that the F.B.I. should keep closer track of the performance of state officials who handle gun background checks in lieu of the F.B.I.
"Given that these background checks involve known or suspected terrorists who could pose homeland security risks," the report said, "more frequent F.B.I. oversight or centralized management would help ensure that suspected terrorists who have disqualifying factors do not obtain firearms in violation of the law."