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The ‘Terror Gap’ Has Fierce Gun Rights Defenders in a Bind

For leaders of the Republican party and the NRA, there’s no clear way to advocate for no compromises on homeland security and the Second Amendment at the same time.

The recent attacks in Paris, carried out primarily with AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifles, have drawn attention to a potential gap in America’s own national security. As it stands, persons on the FBI’s terrorist watch list can legally purchase firearms in the United States — their status is not accounted for in the federal background check system. Over the last 11 years, according to the Government Accountability Office, more than 2,000 people on the list have procured weapons through this loophole.

And since 2007, there have been periodic legislative efforts to close it, all of which have failed in the face of opposition from the National Rifle Association and hardline GOP lawmakers. One exception is Republican Congressman Peter King, who has tried and failed to push through bills that would include terror suspects in the background check system. “Anything which they feel restricts the use or the ability to retain a gun they’re opposed to,” King told the New York Daily News earlier this week. “It’s sort of a knee-jerk reaction.” He and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein are sponsoring a bill to tackle the issue. Known as the “Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2015,” it has little hope of going anywhere.

Yet legislative stonewalling does not solve the political problems that the events in Paris present for the NRA and its conservative allies, who find themselves in a double bind: They must decided whether or not a no-compromise interpretation of the Second Amendment supersedes U.S. national security. The gun lobby and Republican leaders each positions themselves as stalwart defenders of the former as well as the latter. On the question of the so-called terror gap in gun background checks, there is no clear way to be both.

Along with battling phantom gun confiscation schemes and small-town gun ordinances, the NRA believes it serves on the front lines of the fight against jihadists. In September, the organization introduced an ad campaign called “Freedom’s Safest Place.” One of the spokesmen is Marcus Luttrell, the former Navy Seal whose autobiography was the basis for the popular film Lone Survivor. He looks deadpan at a camera and addresses a theoretical “Islamic extremist.” “I will say what I think,” he says, “worship according to my beliefs, and raise my children how I see fit. And I defend it all with the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

As it simultaneously defends the terror loophole in the background check system, the NRA has cited the possibility that a person might wind up in the government’s database on “dubious grounds” and protested giving the FBI “arbitrary power over a constitutionally protected right.” There are premises for those arguments, and media outlets have reported on the loose protocols for being watch-listed. But the public may not prove receptive to the group’s talking points, especially given that its core messages include variations on “better safe than sorry” and that it has built a policy legacy that includes, via Stand Your Ground, special legal protections for gun owners who shoot unarmed people in questionable self-defense scenarios.

In 2013, the New England Journal of Medicine published a poll that asked Americans whether they supported prohibiting suspects on the watch list from buying guns. Eighty-six percent of respondents answered in the affirmative. That included 82 percent of gun owners surveyed and 76 percent of NRA members.

“There have been all of these extreme efforts to deter terrorists in this country,” says Karen Greenberg, the Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University. “And yet we’ve missed this huge elephant in the room, and that’s access to firearms. By not enhancing background checks, you’re taking an essential piece of prevention out of the hands of law enforcement.” She notes that with respect ISIS, which was responsible for the rampage in Paris, there is a call for “local attacks in a kind of ad hoc way. In the U.S., guns are easy to get. Explosives are tough to make.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has so far avoided being drawn into a debate over closing the terror gap, ducking a reporter’s question earlier this week by saying, “I’m not particularly familiar with that.” (This despite having attended at least three committee meetings — on June 4, 2009, April 7, 2011, and March 15, 2012 — where legislation to close the loophole was discussed.) As the issue of homeland security overtakes the parties’ primary races, Republican presidential contenders may find it harder to skirt the conflict. “This is one where the Republican candidates may have to defy the NRA, or the NRA may have do what they rarely do and give ground,” David Axelrod, the chief strategist of Barack Obama’s White House campaigns, tells The Trace.

The next Republican debate is on December 15. Greenberg says she has a question in mind for the moderators: “Can you say you care the most about our national security,” she would ask, “and not try to keep guns away from dangerous people?”

[Photo: AP/Susan Walsh]