Columnist: Should terror suspects still have access to guns, after the Orlando tragedy?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 16, 2016

For years, senators have introduced bills trying to keep terror suspects from buying guns. Even though more than 75 percent of Americans support this legislation, opponents have blocked these amendments. Their own plan on terror suspects and guns would have made it harder to stop the Orlando shooter.

For years, senators have tried to pass laws restricting terror suspects in America from buying a gun. U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey brought up the bill several times before his death, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced similar legislation after the Paris attacks, according to the Washington Post, all to no avail. Even after the San Bernadino Christmas party shooting, Feinstein’s bill was blocked yet again, according to UPI.

“They don’t have to bring it with them, they can buy it once they get here,” Feinstein declared, according to the Washington Post. “If you’re too dangerous to board a plane, you’re too dangerous to buy a gun.”

Public opinion is on the side of Feinstein’s bill. A Quinnipiac poll of Americans on the subject showed that 77 percent of Americans support keeping terror suspects from getting a gun. Only 18 percent of Americans think terror suspects should be allowed to purchase a gun.

The Bush administration proposed such a bill in 2007 and GOP Congressman and presidential candidate Peter King of New York introduced similar legislation blocking terror suspects from buying a gun, but was dismayed to find that his nine-year effort to pass such a bill has been in vain, according to the NY Daily News.

Law enforcement also sees such a bill as necessary to their attempts to stop terrorism. According to CNBC, former ATF Agent Jim Cavanaugh said this after the Orlando terror attack.

“Here’s a glaring example, let’s make sure anybody who came to the interest of the Joint Terrorism Task Force for whatever reason, even if the file was closed, if they’re going to be buying a firearm and lots of ammunition … (we should) know that … We’re not going to arrest the guy. We’re not going to kick his door in. Just want to know, tell us he’s buying a gun today … It took a week for him to then kill. … We can tighten that up through process. But it doesn’t mean we can arrest him.”

Stung by criticism that they’ve been allowing terror suspects to legally buy guns, opponents of the bill introduced their own legislation in December of last year. Texas Sen. John Cornyn’s bill allows the national government to have a 72 hour delay for a gun purchase for someone on the watch list. But in writing of his support for the Cornyn bill, conservative John McCormack from the Weekly Standard shows why such a law wouldn’t have stopped the Orlando shooter.

“The GOP bill puts the burden on the government to get judicial clearance, while the Democratic bill puts the burden on the individual to prove his innocence,” McCormack writes. “The GOP bill requires the government to show ‘probable cause’ to a judge, while the Democratic bill relies on a lower legal standard that a “preponderance of evidence” shows the attorney general has a ‘reasonable belief’ that the prospective gun buyer may be a terrorist.”

In addition, McCormack points out that former Sen. Ted Kennedy and a fellow Weekly Standard writer, Stephen Hayes, were accidentally put on a no-fly list.

With the tougher legal hurdle, the government would have had a difficult time showing “probable cause” for the Orlando shooter, or many other domestic terrorists who have become adept at keeping a relatively low profile before they start the killing. On the other hand, a “reasonable belief” standard at least gives law enforcement a chance to keep a weapon out of the hands of a would-be terrorist for more than 72 hours, and for cases of mistakes like Kennedy and Hayes to still effectively challenge being on the list in court.

There’s public support, law enforcement support and bipartisan support for this bill. Hopefully, the accumulation of so many preventable tragedies will now get the remaining opponents of the bill to join the fight against arming domestic terror suspects.

By John A. Tures

Contributing columnist

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College. He may be reached at