For gun purchasers, should “no-fly” mean “no buy?”

People on the government’s terrorist watch list tried to buy guns almost 1,000 times in the last five years, a federal study finds. In nine out of 10 cases, federal authorities let them do it, the report finds, because there was no legal way to stop them.

And that appears to be OK with the gun lobby, which sounds less fired up by the suspicious gun purchases than by Congress’ efforts to stop them.
There were 963 attempts by people on the government’s “no fly” list to buy guns from licensed dealers over the past five years ending in February, according to the Government Accountability Office report, and 865 were approved. At least one person on the watch list was able to buy explosives.

At present, no one can be blocked from buying a gun just because his name is on the list. The rejections were for other reasons, such as a prior criminal conviction or illegal immigration status. Which raises a good question: If the government thinks certain people pose too much of a risk to be allowed on a plane, why are they allowed to buy firearms?

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a long-time gun control crusader, has introduced a bill to let “no-fly” mean “no buy,” too. His bill and a similar one introduced by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) in the House would grant authority to the attorney general to block gun sales to people on terror watch lists.

That upsets the gun lobby, which opposes terrorists yet seldom has seen a gun control measure that it didn’t hate. I’ve had more than a few quarrels with the gun lobby, but this time they’re not firing blanks, especially with their suspicions about the quality of the watch lists.

The National Rifle Association, among other gun groups, opposes using the government’s watch lists because, among other problems, the lists are not reliable enough. Their point is backed up by a Justice Department inspector general’s report released in May. It found 24,000 of the 400,000 people on the watch list were listed based on outdated or irrelevant information in FBI files. Some people’s cases had been closed for years, yet their names remained on the watch list.

And that’s not counting the many innocent airline passengers who have been stopped by airport security merely because they are unfortunate enough to have a name that is similar to someone else who is on the watch list. Among more famous “false positives” at airport security checkpoints have been Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), former South African President Nelson Mandela, various men named David Nelson (including the former co-star of TV’s “Ozzie and Harriet”) and a number of preschool-aged children.

Yet, contrary to popular belief, no one has ever been found to be on the watch list because of “mistaken identity,” according to Timothy J. Healy, director of the U.S. Terrorist Screening Center. Individuals stopped because their names were similar to those of watch-listed people, he said in a statement, “can almost always be quickly resolved through the use of additional identifying information.”

He also pointed out that most of the people on the list are not in the U.S. and that fewer than 5 percent are U.S. citizens or permanent legal residents.

Identity confusion during gun purchases could similarly be resolved during the criminal background checks and waiting periods that are required during legal gun purchases — except at gun shows, which is another debate topic. Lautenberg is pushing legislation to close the gun show loophole. That reform sounds long overdue to me, especially when gun shows have reportedly become a major source for weapons in Mexico’s devastating drug war.

The NRA is not all wrong. I support the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, even though the debate continues as to whether that right was meant to apply only to members of a militia. Even so, just as there are limits on First Amendment rights for the good of the larger society (no shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, for example, unless there really is a fire), I also support background checks, waiting periods and other reasonable safeguards regarding who has access to firearms.

“To deny law-abiding people due process and their Second Amendment rights based on a secret list is not how we do things in America,” said Chris W. Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, in a prepared statement. He’s right that rights should not be denied. However, as much as gun purchasers may object, it is not unreasonable to hold up a gun purchase for a few days so a background check can be conducted — as long as the check is reliable enough to be worth the wait.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail [email protected]

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