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terror watch list and gun sales

The terrorist watch list and its effect on gun sales and federal background checks is unsuccessfully brought up from time to time when the debate on gun ownership is factored into terrorism prevention.

Do those on the terror watch list and no fly list have the ability to purchase firearms? Yes.

There are federal reports that prove this and proposed legislation that has targeted this.

This is an objective analysis of the topic. If you have thoughts one way or another, please list them in the comments, but be civil.

Have People Listed on the Terror Watch List Passed Background Checks?

background checks and watch list

Before answering that question, it's important to understand who compiles the terror watch list, what it is and how it's categorized.

The Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) is the U.S. government's consolidated source of identity information for both known and suspected terrorists.

terror watch list and guns

Known terrorists: (a) individuals who've been arrested, charged by information, indicted for or convicted of terrorist activities in the U.S. or abroad. (b) identified as a terrorist or member of a terrorist organization per statute, Executive Order or compliance with the United Nations Security Council Resolution.

Suspected terrorists: an individual who's reasonably suspected to be engaging in, has engaged in, or intends to engage in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism and/or terrorist activities.

The Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) maintains, operates and shares information within the watchlist. It's a multi-agency coalition administered by the FBI, and it's responsible for sharing info from the watchlist with all relevant law enforcement bodies.

There is also the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which tends to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE). TIDE is the U.S. Government's classified repository on international known and suspected terrorists, and information is shared from it to the TSDB.

As of June 2016, there were about 1.5 million individuals listed in TIDE, and approximately 1 percent (15,000) were U.S. Persons. There are about 1 million records in the TSDB. Of those, about 81,000 are on the No Fly list, which along with the Selectee List is a subset within TSDB.

With that said, since February of 2004 the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has filtered and tracked those who've passed through it during firearms and explosives transactions, and matched those names against available terrorist watchlist data.

From 2004 to 2015, there were a total of 2,477 valid matches between the two databases (NICS and TSDB), according to a 2016 report released by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO). Of those 2,477 on the terror watchlist who passed through the NICS during a transaction, 2,265 were allowed to proceed and 212 were denied.

Note that there is not much data to track which of them followed through with a purchase, because while dealers are required to maintain that information, they aren't mandated to share it with the FBI.

A U.S. GAO report on criminal arms trafficking from the U.S. to Mexico indicated this lack of data.

"Specifically, officials identified key challenges related to restrictions on collecting and reporting information on firearms purchases, a lack of required background checks for private firearms sales, and limitations on reporting requirements for multiple sales," according to the report published in 2009.

In any case, those previous background check numbers equate to a 91 percent approval rate of those who were on the terrorist watchlist that passed through an NICS check.

How is this possible?

There is no established federal statute that automatically prevents those on this list from acquiring a gun. They must meet a disqualifying factor under 18 U.S. Code ยง 922 or within state statutes for purchase, possession or carrying.

This presents an important question.

How Do You Get Placed on the Terrorism Watch List?

how to get placed on terror watch list

Constitutionally protected activity under the First and Fourteenth Amendment is listed as a defense against being placed on the terrorism watch list.

But all in all it's a convoluted system.

An unclassified document from 2013 on watchlisting guidance from the NCTC outlined watchlisting policies for nominating agencies, which are the entities that submit individuals they consider qualify under the minimum standards as either a known or suspected terrorist.

The NCTC will accept terrorist nominations from these nominators (federal departments and agencies) and scrutinize them.

"Known terrorist" nominations are presumptively valid, unless the NCTC has credible records that contradict the nomination of the identified individual. However, the nomination is only accepted if the minimum biometric identifying or substantive derogatory criteria are met.

The "substantive derogatory criteria" is demonstrated with "reasonable suspicion" that the nomination is a known or suspected terrorist, based on the total available evidence and information.

Nomination of both classifications of terrorists is subject to NCTC reviewing the "totality of information" for the individual to be added to records, according to section 1.52 of the report. This totality of information will be evaluated "based on the experience of the reviewer, and the facts and rational inferences that may be drawn from those facts, including past conduct, current actions, and credible intelligence concerning future conduct."

There are two types of records in TIDE: terrorist, the vast majority of which in the database are outside the U.S., and non-terrorist records.

Non-terrorists include alien spouses and children of terrorists, which under section 212(a)(3)(B)(i)(IX) of Immigration and Nationality Act may be inadmissible to the U.S., and these records are sent to support immigration and visa screening activities. Family members of terrorists are included in TIDE records, but only for analytics, not watchlisting.

Associates of terrorists and individuals with a link to terrorism (but lacking additional derogatory information to qualify for reasonable suspicion) are listed as non-terrorists.

Given consistent debate over mass shootings and the lethal threats who are guilty of them, another question is particularly poignant and significant.

Is There Legislation Regarding the Terrorism Watchlist Barring Sales and Ownership?

purchasing firearm while on no fly list

There has been legislation on both sides of the bipartisan aisle targeting this, and the laws sought to bar individuals on the terror watchlist from handgun sales.

Republican Senator John Cornyn from Texas proposed a 72-hour wait period when someone on a watch or no-fly list attempted to purchase a firearm. During that timeframe investigators would need to prove they had ties to terrorism.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein from California proposed an outright ban on handgun sales to anyone on a terrorism watch list.

Both measures failed to pass, but each succeeded in drawing ire from the other side.

A recent gunman was on an FBI terrorism watch list at one point, but had been taken off it following two investigations. He had killed 49 people and wounded 58 more in a nightclub in Orlando, and he legally purchased a long gun and semi-automatic pistol in the 12 days prior to the mass shooting.

Similar restrictions have been posed after recent tragedies over the past few years. The Bush Administration in 2007 urged passage of a law that would give the government the ability to block suspected terrorists from firearms sales.

This begs a couple more questions that cannot be objectively answered.

Is there a right way to promote political action in the wake of cultural phenomena and tragedy, and when is it appropriate to push legislation after, before or during conflict?

Do you think handgun sales should be extended to those listed in the terrorism watch list? Let us know in the comments.

gun blog writer jake smith

About The Author

Jake Smith (@notjakesmith) is a copywriter and photographer based in the pacific northwest. He graduated from the University of Idaho with degrees in public relations and apparel.