By Mike Lillis - 05/13/11 10:56 AM EDT
Republicans on the House Judiciary panel shot down a proposal Thursday to prevent weapon sales to suspected terrorists.
In a party-line vote of 21-11, the committee Republicans killed an amendment from Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) that would have blocked firearm purchases by those on the FBI's terrorist watch list. The vote came during the markup of legislation renewing certain provisions of the Patriot Act that are slated to expire later this month.
Quigley accused the Republicans of limiting certain civil liberties for the sake of fighting terrorism in the underlying Patriot Act bill, but refusing to restrict Second Amendment rights for the same purpose.
"We’re here today to try to resolve the question of how best to strike the proper balance between ensuring our national security and protecting our civil liberties,” Quigley said in a statement.
“Surely, we cannot look our constituents in the eye and tell them in good faith that we have decided to enact public policy that restrains some of their civil liberties for the greater good but that we refused to ask the same of suspected terrorists. I know we are smarter than that.”
The Judiciary panel approved the overall Patriot Act bill 22-13, largely along party lines.
Under current law, licensed gun dealers must screen potential buyers to weed out those ineligible to purchase or possess firearms, including illegal immigrants, felons, the severely mentally ill and those convicted of domestic violence.
Appearance on the FBI's terrorist watch list, however, does not alone disqualify people from buying guns. That database is designed to track those "known or appropriately suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism."
Quigley’s amendment would have empowered the U.S. attorney general to deny firearm sales to individuals on the FBI's list when surveillance obtained using the Patriot Act led the attorney general to believe those people would use the weapons for acts of terror.
Judiciary Republicans who spoke against the Quigley amendment Thursday — including Reps. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.) and Louie Gohmert (Texas) — argued that restricting sales to people on the watch list would violate the Second Amendment rights of those placed on the list by mistake.
Sensenbrenner also voiced concerns that denying suspected terrorists firearms would tip them off to the fact they were under surveillance.
Gun-reform advocates, quick to condemn Thursday's vote, say those concerns pale in comparison to the potential dangers of allowing suspected terrorists to purchase weapons.
"Osama bin Laden is dead, but the war on terror is far from over," Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement. "How can the Congress pretend to be serious about protecting the nation from terrorism, while voting to allow known terrorists to buy guns?"
Last month, the Government Accountability Office reported that 247 of the 272 individuals on the terrorist watch list who attempted to buy firearms last year were cleared to do so. The 25 denials were made for other disqualifying reasons, including felony convictions or histories of spousal abuse.