WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats are trying to build support for an effort to bar gun purchases by terror suspects, hoping to take advantage of the same public anxieties about security that gave Republicans a ringing House victory.
The Democratic push seems likely to fall victim to opposition from the National Rifle Association and congressional gun-rights backers, chiefly Republicans, who have smothered firearms curbs for years. If the Republicans who control Congress block votes on the proposal, Democrats hope to profit politically by winning sympathy from angry voters.
"By leaving this terrorist loophole open, Republicans are leaving every community in America vulnerable to attacks by terrorists armed with assault rifles and explosives purchased legally, in broad daylight," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Friday in a written statement.
The bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would have the attorney general compile names of known and suspected terrorists, likely drawing from huge lists the government already keeps. Federally licensed gun dealers would be barred from selling firearms to people on that list if government officials believed they planned to use the weapons for terrorism.
Gun dealers are prohibited from selling to 10 categories of people, including many convicted criminals or those with severe mentally illness.
But people appearing on the government's terror watch lists — including those kept off from airlines — are not automatically disqualified from buying weapons from gun dealers. 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 suspects.
By law, people can try persuading the Justice Department to remove their names from terror lists or can file lawsuits challenging their inclusion. The lists are overwhelmingly composed of foreigners.
Between 2004 and 2014, people on one terror watch list underwent background checks to buy guns 2,233 times and were allowed to make the purchase 91 percent of the time, according to a March report by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative agency of Congress.
NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker noted that there have been numerous instances of innocent people mistakenly added to terror lists. She also accused Democrats of trying to take advantage of heightened public alarm following last week's attacks in Paris, which claimed at least 130 lives and for which the Islamic State, which has also threatened the U.S., has claimed responsibility.
"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.
Feinstein's measure echoes legislation that the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., proposed repeatedly over the last decade and that Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has long pushed. None of those measures has ever received a vote.
Feinstein introduced her bill in February. But last week's mass killings in Paris have injected new life into terrorism and public safety as top-tier political issues.
Just Thursday, Republicans took advantage of voters' security jitters and muscled legislation through the House preventing Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. until the administration tightens restrictions on their entry. Forty-seven Democrats voted for the bill, ignoring a veto threat by President Barack Obama, who said the current screening system is strong and accused Republicans of playing on panicked voters.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., did not respond directly when asked Thursday if he favored barring people on terror lists from buying guns. "We are just beginning this process of reassessing all of our security stances," he said.
Donald Stewart, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said McConnell has not said whether he would be open to a vote on Feinstein's bill.
But opposition from Republicans and some Democrats to curbing firearms runs deep, and such legislation would require support from 60 of the 100 senators. Democrats could not attain that margin even when they had a Senate majority in the months after the 2012 massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut.
Though the Senate had showdown votes on gun curbs in early 2013, it did not revisit the issue as the 2014 elections approached and Reid opted to protect vulnerable Democrats from potentially angering constituents.
The GOP-run House has held no votes on major gun control measures since the Newtown killings.
Feinstein's bill isn't the only gun-related measure Democrats may pursue. A measure by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., would bar gun sales to foreigners in the U.S. from the 38 countries from which visitors need not have visas.