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Editorial: Two ways to keep guns out of terrorists' hands

Zacarias Moussaoui

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Remember Richard Reid, the Shoe Bomber terrorist who in 2001 tried to blow up a plane bound for Miami?

Because Reid is a British citizen, he did not need a visa to enter the United States or — if he had chosen to once he got here — to buy guns.

Something is wrong with that.

Worse yet, remember Zacarias Moussaoi, one of the 9/11 conspirators? Because Moussaoiu was a French citizen, he too did not need a visa to enter the United States. Our nation waives the visa requirement for citizens of France, Great Britain and 36 other favored nations. And once he got here, Moussaoiu, like Reid, was perfectly free to by guns.

Something is terribly wrong in that.

EDITORIAL

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While many in Congress are all in a dither that the United States is offering asylum to some 10,000 refugees from Syria — men, woman children fleeing the savagery of ISIS — they might better expend their energies on keeping guns out of the hands of potential terrorists, including those who arrive here from foreign lands.

Two good bills in the Senate move in that direction.

The first bill, introduced last week by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), would ensure that foreign nationals who enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program — as Moussaoi was — would be prohibited from buying guns, just as those who enter the U.S. on visas are now.

In fact, Durbin notes, both groups had been barred from buying firearms until the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel interpreted the law otherwise in 2011 and allowed such purchases by those visiting the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program.

That program — which allows citizens of 38 countries to enter the U.S. without visas for up to 90 days — has come under increasing scrutiny since the Nov. 13 attacks by ISIS in Paris. Some anti-terrorism experts contend the Visa Waiver Program provides a much swifter and attractive route for terrorists to enter the U.S. than the lengthy vetting process that refugees must submit to.

Unless the Visa Waiver gun-purchasing loophole is closed, terrorist-trained citizens of those 38 countries could fly to the United States, buy guns here and wreak havoc.

A second bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY), would empower Attorney General Loretta Lynch to compile names of known and suspected terrorists who automatically would be denied gun purchases as a result of required background checks by licensed gun dealers.

This bill — the “Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2015” — was introduced back in February, but the Paris attacks have created a new sense of urgency. Last week, more than three dozen Democratic senators urged Republican Senate and House leaders to bring the measure to the floors of both chambers for a vote.

Attorney General Lynch’s list likely would be winnowed from other huge government lists already in existence — including ones that critics say are too broadly drawn to form the foundation for gun-purchasing curbs.

Not unexpectedly, chief among the critics is the National Rifle Association. While the NRA “does not want terrorists or dangerous people to have firearms,” spokesman Lars Dalseide said, the group is concerned that this new terrorist watchlist might not afford some wrongfully-listed U.S. citizens “their constitutional right of due process.”

Law enforcement currently is notified when someone on the Known or Appropriately Suspected Terrorists watchlist — a subset of a broader watchlist — seeks to buy a gun, according to 2010 FBI testimony before a U.S. Senate committee. Federal officials then make a case-by-case decision on the appropriate follow-up, the NRA notes. Such a purchase now may lead to stepped-up surveillance.

Under current background-check procedures, federal officials have three business days to block a gun purchase or it will be cleared.

But between 2004 and 2014, people on one federal watchlist underwent 2,233 background checks, only to be cleared for purchases 91 percent of the time, supporters of the Feinstein/King bill say.

The bill’s language puts significant power in the hands of the U.S. attorney general, allowing her to single out people she reasonably believes “may” use a firearm in connection with terrorism.

It also targets those “known” to be engaging in terrorism, those “appropriately suspected” of engaging in terrorism, or those who have provided “material support” to terrorism.

But another provision of the bill would allow those denied guns under the act to bring legal action challenging that denial. That appeal process must be more than empty words. It must be clear and allow for a swift resolution.

Congress should carefully review the wording of the standards used to place a person on any new watchlist — and then pass this bill.

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