This Chart Shows the Reason People Are Talking About the Terrorist Watch List

June 16th 2016

Alex Mierjeski

In the days after a deadly mass shooting at Pulse nightclub, there's been a lot of talk about strengthening restrictions on weapon-buying for people on the U.S. government's consolidated Terrorist Watchlist.

On Wednesday, in fact, there was about 15 hours talk as Senate Democrats filibustered in support of two pieces of gun control legislation — one of which would ban suspected terrorists from buying guns.

The initiative to tighten restrictions has wide support — from president Barack Obama, to Donald Trump, to the National Rifle Association — and there's one chart from The Washington Post that helps explain why everyone is getting behind it.

Terrorist watch list gun purchases

Between 2004 and 2014, 91 percent of suspected terrorists who tried to purchase guns were allowed to do so. Just a small handful were denied, the Post's Christopher Ingraham reported shortly after the Paris attacks, in November, 2015.

In 2015, only 21 people out of 2,265 were denied, according to an analysis of FBI data by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

These allowances aren't any sort of fluke: "Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law," a 2010 GAO report found.


Politicians and interest groups are trying to close the so-called "terror gap" in hopes that it might prevent a would-be mass shooter from buying guns. But while any measure tightening restrictions on gun sales might incrementally improve public safety, there's debate over whether closing the terror gap is the best way.

For one thing, as The New York Times pointed out, Orlando shooter Omar Mateen was on the terrorist watch list from 2013 to 2014, but was eventually cleared. So it's unclear whether or not the proposed legislation would have even prevented him from buying weapons.

But there's a larger debate at stake.


The terror list in question, maintained through the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, contains an estimated 700,000 names. But critics warn that many of the people on the list might be acquaintances and family members of suspected terrorists, swept up in an overly broad surveillance dragnet.

In response to similar calls to ramp up security against suspected terrorists following the San Bernardino attacks, the American Civil Liberties Union warned about the constitutional implications of the "predictive judgments about what people might do in the future that watch lists rely upon," Quartz reported.

Similar legislation to the proposed terror list ban have been put forth — and voted down — before. But the renewed support for reforms following last weekend's shooting could spur lawmakers to change their tune.