Ft. Hood rampage raises questions about gun control

The FBI had limited time to investigate alleged Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Hasan’s purchase of guns used in the deadly attack. Critics say pro-gun lawmakers have blocked efforts to connect gun purchases with potential terrorists.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters/File
Handguns on display at a store. In the wake of the Fort Hood shootings, some are calling on Congress to give the FBI more time to investigate gun purchasers.

Anything involving guns in the United States is sure to stir up the debate over government gun control. And the recent rampage at Ft. Hood, Texas, where 13 people were killed and 38 wounded, is no exception.

Until 2003, the FBI had up to 180 days to investigate information found in gun purchase background checks. But since then, such information -- which might raise red flags for the FBI -- has been available to the agency for just 24 hours, after which it is destroyed.

Why? Critics say it’s because pro-gun lawmakers, spring-loaded to oppose stronger gun control of any kind, have stymied efforts to give the FBI greater authority to look for gun purchasers who might potentially be terrorists or otherwise prone to attack innocent victims.

“This requirement … meant that Hasan's investigators were blocked from searching records to determine whether he or other terrorist suspects had purchased guns,” say New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean (who chaired the Sept. 11 commission).

In a recent Washington Post op-ed column, Bloomberg and Kean wrote:

“A full investigation will reveal whether other red flags should have resulted in preventive action, but here is one thing we already know: A federal law repeatedly supported by Congress interfered with the FBI's ability to find out about Hasan's purchase of a handgun. Knowledge of that purchase might -- and should -- have triggered great scrutiny. And it could have saved lives.”

Bloomberg and Kean point to another incident in June, when Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad -- who’d also been under investigation by the FBI and was said by law enforcement officials to have “political and religious motives” -- shot and killed an Army soldier and wounded another at a recruiting office in Little Rock, Ark.

In a report to Congress in May, the Government Accountability Office noted that “from February 2004 through February 2009, FBI data show that 963 [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] background checks resulted in valid matches with terrorist watch list records; of these matches, approximately 90 percent were allowed to proceed because the checks revealed no prohibiting information and about 10 percent were denied.” (“Prohibiting information” includes felony conviction or illegal immigration status.)

Mayors Against Illegal Guns” -- a coalition of more than 500 US mayors -- is urging Congress to close what they call “the terror gap” in federal law.

“Law enforcement agencies must be allowed to do their jobs,” the group says on its web site. “That’s why Congress should give the FBI the power to stop firearm sales to terror suspects and allow them access to background check records that could be crucial to terrorism investigations.”

“I can’t think of a more obvious disqualifying criterion from purchasing a weapon than being listed on a terror watch list,” says Rep. Peter King of New York, senior Republican on the Homeland Security Committee. “It is unfathomable to me that we knowingly allow the transfer of firearms to these individuals. Changing this policy should be a no-brainer.”


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