WASHINGTON – People on the U.S. government's terrorist watch list can't board commercial airliners, but they can walk into a gun store and legally buy pistols and powerful military-style rifles.
Sensing a political opening from last week's Paris attacks, Democrats are renewing calls for Congress to pass legislation aimed at preventing terrorists from buying guns. Similar bills — including a post-9/11 measure backed by the Justice Department under Republican President George W. Bush — have been stymied for years, thanks in large part to opposition from gun-rights groups and congressional Republicans.
According to an analysis issued in March by the Government Accountability Office, people on the watch list successfully passed the background check required to purchase firearms more than 90 percent of the time, with more than 2,043 approvals between 2004 and 2014.
The FBI is notified when a background check for the purchase of firearms or explosives generates a match with the watch list, and agents often use that information to step up surveillance on terror suspects. Under current federal law, however, association with a terrorist organization doesn't prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives.
More than 1 million people are on the list administered by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, though only about 25,000 of those are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents legally able to buy guns.
The new Democratic push, which is considered unlikely to succeed in the GOP-controlled Congress, is focused on legislation by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would let the attorney general compile a list of known and suspected terrorists.
Federally licensed gun dealers would be barred from selling firearms to them, just as they are already prohibited from sales to people with felony convictions or serious mental illnesses. The proposed legislation would not prevent transactions that don't involve licensed dealers, such as those between private individuals at gun shows or many sales online, which don't currently involve background checks.
Feinstein introduced her bill in February, well before the mass killings in Paris injected new life into terrorism and public safety as top-tier political issues. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Republicans took advantage of voters' newly aroused security concerns this week, when they easily pushed legislation through the House preventing Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. until the administration tightens restrictions on their entry.
That issue put Democrats on the defensive. Forty-seven of them voted for the bill, ignoring a veto threat by President Barack Obama, who said the current screening system is already strong and accused Republicans of fanning fear among worried voters.
Democrats are hoping to turn the political tables on Republicans by focusing the debate instead on terrorists' access to guns.
"I think this is a no-brainer," said Feinstein, a longtime gun control supporter. "If you're too dangerous to board a plane, you're too dangerous to buy a gun."
Congress has yet to vote on Feinstein's proposal or on nearly identical ones that have been introduced for years. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not said whether he would be open to allowing a vote.
The GOP-run House has not held any votes on major gun control measures since the killings of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Pennsylvania, in 2012.
The National Rifle Association signaled this week it will oppose Feinstein's bill, as it did those before it.
NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker pointed to past instances where innocent people were added to the watch list either in error or as the result of tenuous ties to others involved in suspicious activities. She stressed that the NRA doesn't oppose denying terrorists firearms, but said the group wants to ensure that Americans who are wrongly on the list are afforded their constitutional right to due process.
"It is appalling that anti-gun politicians are exploiting the Paris terrorist attacks to push their gun-control agenda and distract from President Obama's failed foreign policy," Baker said.
Under current law, people can try persuading the Justice Department to remove their names from a terror list or can file lawsuits challenging their inclusion.
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