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Old October 25, 2001, 09:44 PM   #1
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Keeping Guns Away From Terrorists

Keeping Guns Away From Terrorists

By Eric Holder Jr.

Thursday, October 25, 2001; Page A31
In the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the nation is eager for ways to increase security at home -- and understandably so. These unspeakable crimes have taken thousands of innocent lives, devastated countless families and made us feel a new and terrible kind of vulnerability. Throughout the country, people are having the same conversations: How could this happen? How do we cope with it? And what can we do, as a nation and as individuals, to safeguard against further acts of terrorism?
As the nation struggles to come to terms with these questions, we all agree on one thing: Our nation's security requires a multifaceted approach to preventing terrorism. This means increased surveillance of suspected terrorists, heightened security at public buildings, airports and especially our other means of transportation, and more resources for law enforcement.
Some citizens believe that they need to purchase firearms for self-protection. If the recent increase in firearms sales is attributable to people who may lawfully purchase firearms, that is the decision of the individual and not a matter that should be the subject of government oversight. If, on the other hand, any firearm purchased in this country falls into the hands of a terrorist because no background check was done, that is another national tragedy waiting to happen. Fortunately for our nation, there is an easy and safe solution.
One measure that is an essential part of any plan is the need to tighten our nation's gun laws, which allow the easy and legal sale of firearms to terrorists and criminals. While we are appropriately discussing requiring criminal background checks on airline pilots, baggage handlers and airport security personnel, federal law does not require background checks on all firearms sales. In the interest of national security, this should be changed immediately.
Under the Brady Law, gun buyers must undergo criminal background checks only when they buy firearms from licensed dealers. And that law has made our communities safer, stopping nearly 700,000 criminals and other prohibited people from purchasing firearms in the seven years it has been in effect. This requirement has resulted in only a minor inconvenience to law-abiding citizens, which has been far outweighed by the strong benefit to society of keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals and terrorists.
Unfortunately, unlicensed sellers are permitted by law to sell firearms with no background check whatever. Millions of firearms change hands every year through this back-door yet perfectly legal method, giving criminals and terrorists remarkably easy and undetectable access to weapons. This legal loophole must be closed immediately. We can no longer allow the purchase of firearms through the Internet or a newspaper ad, at a gun show or a flea market, or in any other type of sale from an unlicensed seller, without any background check or other record of purchase. The stakes are too high.
While the reasons should be self-evident, there are numerous and chilling examples of the need to extend the background check to every firearm sale. Just last year, for example, a previously convicted felon and terrorist, Ali Boumelhem, went to a Michigan gun show, where he was legally exempt from a background check, and purchased assault weapons, shotguns, ammunition and flash suppressors that he intended to ship to the terrorist group Hezbollah. Fortunately, Boumelhem was already under FBI surveillance for suspected terrorism and was captured before he was able to ship the weapons to Hezbollah.
In Florida, four people were convicted last year of smuggling guns and other weapons from the state for use by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. One of the convicted IRA terrorists, Conor Claxton, testified that he was shocked by the variety of weapons available in Florida at gun shows and through newspaper ads. "We have nothing like this at home," he said.
Indeed, if Osama bin Laden, who is under indictment in this country for the bombing of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, were to go to a willing or unwary unlicensed gun dealer at a gun show, no mechanism is in place to prevent him from obtaining a weapon of his choice. Unfortunately, the gaping holes in our current law have likely allowed thousands of undetected firearm purchases by criminals and terrorists. This kind of terrorist loophole in the laws of the United States is simply unacceptable and must be closed.
In addition to background checks on all gun sales, records used to check the eligibility of an individual to purchase a firearm should include whether the potential buyer is on an FBI or other law enforcement watch list of suspected terrorists.
To further strengthen the ability of law enforcement officials to track those suspected of terrorism or other criminal acts in this country, Congress should also pass legislation that would give the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms a record of every firearm sale. Current law makes it difficult for law enforcement officials to check whether suspected criminals or terrorists have bought a gun. As we have seen in the past few weeks, law enforcement officials have made incredible progress in the criminal investigation of the terrorist attacks by examining phone records, banking records, credit card records, travel records, immigration records and the like. The ability to review gun records is crucial to law enforcement's efforts to protect our communities from violence and terrorism.
Congress must take immediate action to close these two gaping loopholes in the law. Our national security requires it. And the public should demand it.
The writer is a partner at the law firm Covington and Burling; he was previously deputy attorney general and U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia in the Clinton administration.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
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