Published May 17, 2009
A bill designed to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists is drawing fire from gun rights advocates who say it could infringe upon regular citizens' constitutional right to bear arms.
The Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2009 would authorize Attorney General Eric Holder to deny the sale or transfer of firearms to known or suspected terrorists -- a list that could extend beyond groups such as radical Islamists and other groups connected to international terror organizations.
Critics say the names of suspected terrorists could be drawn from existing government watch lists that cover such broad categories as animal rights extremists, Christian identity extremists, black separatists, anti-abortion extremists, anti-immigration extremists and anti-technology extremists.
"It doesn't say anything about trials and due process," said Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. "This is one of the most outrageous pieces of legislation to come along in some time. It's basically saying, 'I suspect you, so your rights are toast.'"
Terrorist watch lists came under fire last month after a Department of Homeland Security report warned that right wing extremist groups may be expanding their membership in the midst of current economic upheaval. While the report stated that such groups were not believed to be planning any terrorist attacks, it went on to state they might do so in the name of issues like abortion, immigration and gun control.
The report sparked outrage from conservative groups and politicians, including Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, who called it "political profiling."
A similar DHS report on left wing terrorist groups, such as Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, was released in January.
The proposed gun control bill, which was introduced by Rep. Peter King, R-NY, last week and has bipartisan support, is currently before the House Judiciary Committee.
A spokesman from King's office said his decision to propose the bill had nothing to do with either DHS report. This is at least the second time the congressman has pushed a bill designed to restrict gun sales to suspected terrorists.
But, while nobody wants domestic terrorists to have easy access to guns -- King called the bill a "no-brainer" in a statement released by his office Tuesday -- some critics say it could be treading a thin line constitutionally.
Taking away an individual's constitutional right without giving him the opportunity to stand trial would likely open the federal government to legal challenges, said Robert Cottrol, a law professor at George Washington University.
"There is a Second Amendment right to hold and bear arms," he said. "That right is not absolute, for instance with convicted criminals. But there would have to be an individualized determination, as in a trial, to prove someone is guilty of something before they are deprived of such a right."
Under the proposed law, those denied access to firearms would have the right to challenge the government's ruling in federal court.
"Common-sense laws that protect us from terrorism must be put in place," King said in his statement. "Our role in Congress is to create laws that protect the American people, not to uphold those that give terrorists the right to bear arms."
The National Rifle Association, the nation's largest pro-gun lobby, said it was still reviewing King's bill, but a spokesman said the organization had opposed similar efforts "in the past due to the serious inaccuracies within the terror lists that affect the rights of law abiding citizens."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks, the U.S. government has undertaken a number of domestic security programs in the name of national security. But those programs have at times invited criticisms that the government was intruding on citizens' rights.
"You have to exercise very strong judgment through the courts," said Herb London, president of the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "The big question is, can the U.S. protect itself and maintain the its civil liberties?"
Some conservative bloggers see a clear connection between the DHS reports and the gun control bill, fearing that citizens' Second Amendment rights could be infringed upon due to their political leanings. But otherwise, the bill has raised little protest.
The American Legion, the largest veterans group in the country, harshly criticized DHS officials last month after they reported that veterans would be likely recruits for right wing groups looking for "combat skills and experience."
But when contacted Tuesday, a Legion spokesman said the group had no intention of fighting King's gun control bill.
"I don't see anything in the bill we'd be concerned about. It all seems pretty logical," the spokesman said.
Since the outset of the 2008 campaign, President Obama has stated that he will push for greater gun control measures. And while it doesn't appear the president will be taking on the controversial Clinton-era ban on assault weapons anytime soon (the ban expired in 2004) gun rights advocates are concerned, Pratt said.
"This is a very dangerous time. The president has a voting record in the Illinois Senate of voting for gun bans," he said. "Hopefully, he's not going to have the votes."
Last year the Supreme Court upheld an individual's right to bear arms when it struck down a decades-old ban on firearms in Washington, D.C. The decision was the Court's first Second Amendment ruling in over 70 years, Cottrol said.
"We had this vacuum where the lower courts discussed it, but the Supreme Court remained silent," he said. "The jurisprudence on (gun control) is very much in its infancy."