In the days since the bombing in Boston, we've learned that in 2011 the FBI interviewed the older of the two brothers suspected in the attack. Which raises the question of what greater scrutiny could have prevented. The FBI does have a terror watch list for people they are following closely, and let's consider the effectiveness of one of their tools. Background checks are a way to prevent guns from landing in the wrong hands.

But as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, a background check cannot prevent anyone on the federal terror watch list from purchasing a weapon.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Even al-Qaida gloats about what's possible under U.S. gun laws.


ADAM GADAHN: America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center...

CHANG: This is a video message from senior al-Qaida operative Adam Gadahn.


GADAHN: Without a background check and most likely without having to show an identification card, so what are you waiting for?

CHANG: But if Gadahn was really worried about background checks, he's in luck. Under current laws, if a background check reveals your name is on the national terror watch list, you're still free to walk out of that gun dealership with a firearm in your hands, as long as you don't have a criminal or mental health record.

Data from the Government Accountability Office show between 2004 and 2010, more than 1300 people on terror watch lists were able to buy guns or explosives after a background check. That's insane to Jon Lowy. He's a lawyer for the Brady Campaign, a gun control group.

JON LOWY: It's absurd that we allow people to buy unlimited AK-47s, AR-15s and Uzis even if we feel they're too dangerous to be allowed on a plane even after they've gone through a security check.

MICHAEL JAMES BARTON: No. No, no, no, no. Here's the thing: You have a greater constitutional right to purchase a handgun than you have to board an airplane.

CHANG: That's Michael James Barton. He was a White House counterterrorism official during the Bush administration. Barton says before the government can limit anybody's Second Amendment rights, it needs a pretty good reason. And in his experience, a lot of totally innocent people end up on the terror watch list - like business associates, roommates, or landlords of suspected terrorists.

BARTON: Some of them are merely individuals who have proximity to terrorism suspects, and are not themselves the focus of any investigation or any suspicion whatsoever.

CHANG: And then there are the mistaken names. The late senator Ted Kennedy showed up on the No-Fly list in 2004 because a suspected terrorist was using the alias Edward Kennedy. Also, gun rights supporters ask, why tip-off an actual terrorist that we're on to him, by telling him he failed a background check?

Richard Feldman heads the Independent Firearm Owners Association.

RICHARD FELDMAN: We're going to go, Boy, we're so good - we prevented those terrorists from getting the guns. No we didn't. We prevented them from getting them from a legitimate source, where we had an opportunity to follow them. Now we don't know if they're ever going to get them, when they get them, where they got them.

CHANG: Gun control supporters scratch their heads at that logic. Why not just pass a law letting the government block a dangerous person on the terror watch list from buying a gun? So far, the gun lobby has stopped that idea.

MARK GLAZE: This is yet another example of zealots on the far right of the gun movement throwing away the baby with the bath water.

CHANG: Mark Glaze, of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has tried to push for legislation that would close the terror watch loophole. It was filed as an amendment to the gun control bill last week, but things ground to halt in the Senate after every major gun control proposal failed.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from