In the past year, terrorists have planned to blow up the New York City subway system, an airplane over Detroit, and Times Square. These high-profile plots have reminded us that terrorists are as determined as ever to strike within the United States. They have also left an impression, pushed heavily in the media, that the next attack will be a massive explosion. But, in responding to terrorist threats to the homeland, policymakers and pundits routinely ignore one important trend: Terrorism often comes from the barrel of a gun—and, when it does, the consequences are often fatal.
From the beginning of 2005 through the end of 2009, the U.S. National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) documented 62,625 terrorist attacks worldwide, with a death toll of 88,431. Of those attacks, 25,320—more than 40 percent—involved guns. No other weapon was used as frequently. (Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, came second in line—they were used in 26 percent of attacks, mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.) Guns were also the most lethal of weapons used, responsible for 40,198 deaths.
This troubling pattern is particularly evident in the United States. Since September 11, according to information from the NCTC, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), and news accounts, there have been 65 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. When the incidents perpetrated by eco-terrorists (who tend to target property only) are filtered out, 26 attacks remain, with an overall death toll of 22 people. Twenty-one of those victims were shot to death, in eight attacks involving guns.
And, yet, while the federal government has taken steps in recent years to improve airline security, enhance domestic intelligence, and clamp down on access to materials needed for explosive devices, it has done little to stop suspected terrorists from getting their hands on guns. These weapons remain cheap, readily available, easy to use, and deadly.
The story of Major Nidal Malik Hasan is well-known. On November 5, 2009, he entered the Soldier Readiness Processing Center in Fort Hood, Texas, and opened fire on soldiers who were awaiting pre-deployment medical exams. When it was over, Hasan’s rampage had left 13 people dead and another 43 injured. Investigators concluded that, in just minutes, Hasan had managed to fire over 100 rounds from his “cop killer” FN Herstal 5.7 tactical pistol.
Disturbingly, the FBI had previously investigated Hasan for his ties to a radical cleric in Yemen. But, when he purchased his firearm in August 2009 from Guns Galore, a licensed shop in Killeen, Texas, his information was not shared with the federal joint terrorism task force that had him under prior watch. Instead, Hasan was able to purchase the weapon he would use in the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil since September 11.
Hasan's story illustrates that, to kill people, scare the public, and attract media attention, all a terrorist needs is a gun, ample ammunition, a densely populated soft target, and the will to kill. But, perhaps more importantly, it shows how ineffective the government is at denying terrorists access to firearms.
When people attempt to purchase guns from licensed dealers, they must pass a background check mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. A purchaser’s paperwork is submitted by a dealer to the FBI, and grounds for denying purchase include a felony indictment or conviction, substance abuse, dishonorable military discharge, and proven mental problems. Conspicuously absent from this list? That the purchaser is known or suspected to be involved in terrorist activities—namely, that he or she is on the nation's terrorist watch list, a classified database of approximately 400,000 people. (People like Hasan who have been investigated by the FBI are, presumably, on the list.)
The Government Accountability Office has found that, from February 2004 to February 2010, 1,225 purchases involving individuals on the watch list were submitted for a Brady background check. Ninety-one percent of these transactions were approved; the other 9 percent were denied for reasons other than the purchasers' suspected terrorist activities. In 2009, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who was also on the FBI's radar, bought a gun that he used to execute a drive-by shooting outside a U.S. military recruiting office in Little Rock, Arkansas. One soldier was killed, another wounded. Similarly, anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder legally purchased the handgun he used to kill Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller in 2009 from a pawn shop in Lawrence, Kansas. The FBI had previously investigated Roeder for his anti-government activities as a member of the Montana Freeman militia.
So what's to be done? It’s simple. Just as there is a no-fly list that keeps suspected terrorists from boarding planes, Congress should pass legislation that creates a no-buy list to prevent suspected terrorists from purchasing guns. Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, and Representative Peter King, a Republican, have twice introduced legislation that would create such a list, and the Obama administration supports the effort. The legislation takes into account criticisms of the terrorist watch list—that it is bloated, for instance, and encompasses innocent people, including those who happen to share names with terrorist suspects—by including a due process provision for people who believe they've been wrongfully denied a gun purchase; they would be able petition to have the restriction against them lifted.
Unfortunately, lawmakers face a strong gun-rights lobby, which refuses to acknowledge that firearms are often terrorists' weapons of choice. (Former National Rifle Association chief lobbyist James Baker once argued that the September 11 attacks were perpetrated “with box cutters, and I don’t see anyone talking about closing down True Value hardware stores.”) To date, Lautenberg and King's bill has never received a full up-or-down vote on the floor of either chamber of Congress. "I'm not so sure this is the right solution," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said weakly in a Hill hearing last month on gun restrictions.
But, as the evidence shows, terrorists know that guns often give them the best bang for their buck. Until Congress closes the loopholes in gun purchasing, extremists will keep exploiting the system; they will purchase firearms and continue to engage in what has become a frequent and deadly form of terrorism.
Louis Klarevas is a member of the clinical faculty at New York University's Center for Global Affairs, where he also serves as the coordinator of the graduate transnational security concentration. You can follow him on Twitter at @NYUProf.