What to make of the claim that 247 people on the terror watch list bought guns last year
Here is the claim in the left-wing Huffington Post.
More than 200 people suspected of ties to terrorism bought guns in the U.S. last year legally, FBI figures show.
The 247 people who were allowed to buy weapons did so after going through required background checks as required by federal law. . . .
The secret, fluid nature of the terror watch list has made closing what Lautenberg calls a "terror gap" in the nation's gun laws a challenge. About the same number of people suspected of ties to terrorism also successfully purchased guns in the U.S. in 2009. The FBI provided the new numbers to the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, and the figures were obtained by The Associated Press.
The government can only prevent people from buying guns for any of 11 reasons. Convicted felons and illegal immigrants, for example, cannot buy weapons. But the terrorist watch list is different. People become convicted felons only after a court process and an opportunity to defend themselves. The watch list is secret and generated at the government's discretion. It is not a list of people convicted of terrorism crimes.
The list of about 450,000 people includes suspected members of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations, terror financiers, terror recruiters and people who attended training camps. People's names are added to and removed from the watch list every day, and most people never know whether they're on it. . . .
As the late Senator Ted Kennedy learned the hard way, getting flagged by the secret terror list simply means that you have the same name as someone else on the list. There are several big problems with background checks and the terror list. 1) That background checks don't stop criminals from getting guns. 2) That the people denied buying guns by the NICS checks are virtually all false positives. And these false positives will stop some people who are being stalked and threatened from getting a gun quickly. 3) That people get on this "secret" terror list without any court decision that would cause people to lose their right to own a gun. Here is something that I wrote up recently at BigGovernment.com.
The same problem occurred five times for the late Senator Ted Kennedy when he was placed on a “no fly list.” If someone is flagged by the NICS system, it is because it appears that they didn’t put down something in their background that disqualified them from buying a gun. Yet, an initial denial does not mean that the individual is actually disqualified from owning a gun. Take the numbers for 2008, the latest year with data available. There were 78,906 initial denials. Of those, only 5,573, or 7 percent, were referred to the BATF for further investigation. As a report on these denials by the U.S. Department of Justice indicates, “The remaining denials (73,333 – 93%) did not meet referral guidelines or were overturned after review by Brady Operations or after the FBI received additional information.” To put it differently, the initial review didn’t find that these individuals had a record that prevented them from buying a gun.
Still that isn’t the end of the story. Of these 5,573 referrals, over 44 percent, or 2,472 cases, involve “delayed denials,” cases where a check hasn’t even been completed. Of the rest, 3,101 covered cases where initial reviews indicated that the person should have been denied buying a gun. But the government admits that upon further review about a fifth of these referrals involved “no potential or unfounded” violations of the law, leaving about 4,400 cases. That implies an initial false positive rate of roughly 94.4%. And it still doesn’t mean that the government hasn’t made a mistake on the remaining cases. In some cases for example, a person’s criminal record was supposed to be expunged, and it had not been?
Up until this point, no discretion about the merits of the case has entered the picture. If a review of the records indicates that someone is a prohibited individual, they are included. But of these 4,400 cases, only 147 cases involving banned individuals trying to purchase guns being referred to prosecutors. Of those 147 cases, prosecutors thought the evidence was strong enough to bring a case only 105 times.
Prosecution may be declined either because further investigation revealed that the person wasn’t prohibited from owning a gun, because false information hadn’t knowingly been provided, or prosecutors didn’t believe that the cases “merited” prosecution. But if someone is indeed prohibited from owning a gun and they left that information off their NICS form, it is relatively easy for authorities to prove they knowingly concealed that information. The most frequently claimed reasons that people failed the background checks are: “restraining orders, domestic violence misdemeanors, non-immigrant aliens, violent felonies, warrants, and indictments.” How hard is it for prosecutors to prove that someone hadn’t accidentally forgotten that they had a conviction for a violent felony or they had a restraining order?
While prosecutors tend to go forward with their strongest cases, those prosecuted are often not found guilty. By the end of 2009, prosecutors had only 43 convictions, and only 22 of those involved falsified information when buying a gun or illegal possession of a gun, that translates into just 0.03% of the 78,906 initial denials. . . .