The One Major Issue With Banning Suspected Terrorists From Buying Guns

June 17th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

The FBI's terrorist watch list is in the spotlight again after it was revealed that the gunman behind the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history was included on the list for 10 months before being removed.


Despite the failure of gun control legislation that would limit the ability of people on the U.S. government's various watch lists to purchase firearms, the fact is, such measures are very popular among Americans.

But others question the function and effectiveness of the watch lists.

"I don’t think that expanding the list does anything to make us safer," David Gomez, a retired FBI counterterrorism expert, told TakePart. "Over time, it has become inefficient, if not problematic. The watch list is too easy to get on and too hard to get off."


The FBI's terrorist watch list was instituted in the aftermath of 9/11. In 2014, the Terrorist Screening Center — a division of the FBI that's responsible for monitoring the lists — said that at least 800,000 people were on the list (only a few thousand are Americans, according to FiveThirtyEight). How many people are on this list today, and for what reasons, is not known. Critics say that the lack of transparency around the list is part of the problem.

I asked the FBI to clarify what warrants inclusion on a watch list. The agency wasn't able to tell me.

"The Terrorist Screening Center does not publicly confirm nor deny whether any individual maybe included in the U.S. Government's Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) or a subset list," Dave Joly, a spokesperson for the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, told ATTN:. "Disclosure of an individual's inclusion or non-inclusion in the TSDB or on the No Fly List would significantly impair the government's ability to investigate and counteract terrorism, and protect transportation security."

The fact that U.S. citizens can be placed on a list without their knowledge, and without having actually been charged with a crime, has raised questions about whether the list violates civil liberties. If you don't know you're included on the list, there's almost no way to contest the inclusion, either — a feature of the list that the ACLU opposes.


"Whatever the flaws of the list, it seems likely that many people who are on it could have been automatically stopped from buying guns from retailers had the list been used for a presale background check," FiveThirtyEight reports. "From 2004 to 2015, some 2,477 people on the terror watch list attempted to buy a firearm or explosive through a licensed dealer, according to data from the Government Accountability Office."

Just 212 applications (about nine percent) were denied because federal law stipulates that being on the terrorist watch list is not "in and of itself a disqualifying factor" for purchasing a firearm, a 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service determined.

RELATED: NRA Announces Support for Restrictions on Gun Sales to Certain Individuals