By Eric Zimmermann - 05/06/10 12:06 AM EDT
New York City officials on Wednesday seized on the attempted terror attack in Times Square to urge Congress to tighten counterterrorism policies.
In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly called on lawmakers to close a loophole that lets individuals on the federal government’s terrorism watch list buy firearms and explosives.
“The key element of any smart counterterrorism strategy is to make it harder for terrorists to strike,” Bloomberg said. “And that’s why it’s just common sense to give the FBI the authority to keep terror suspects from buying guns and explosives.”
Because of the so-called “terror gap,” the FBI has no authority to prevent individuals on the watch list from buying guns from licensed U.S. dealers unless they have a separate criminal record. Pointing to last weekend’s attempted bombing, Bloomberg and Kelly said it was imperative that Congress act quickly to change that.
A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that between 2004 and February 2010, suspected terrorists tried to purchase weapons 1,228 times. They were successful in 91 percent of those attempts.
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) told the panel that the public would not be forgiving if suspected terrorists legally purchased weapons used to kill Americans.
“Just think what the American people would think of us,” King said. “There would be blood on our hands.”
King has introduced legislation in the House to close the loophole. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was unsure Wednesday whether the Obama administration would push for legislation to close the loophole.
“I saw Mayor Bloomberg testify to that, and I’ve asked for guidance if we’ve taken a position on that bill or not,” he told reporters.
Despite the timeliness of the hearing, gun-rights supporters said the terrorism watch list should not be used as a gun-control database.
“The problem I have is that [the] watch list, when you look at the numbers, has so many problems with it that I think it’s not appropriate to go down the road that we’re going because a constitutional right is involved,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamShutdown risk grows over Flint Senate poised to override Obama veto Overnight Defense: Debate night is here | Senate sets vote on 9/11 veto override | Kerry, McCain spar over Syria MORE (R-S.C.) told Bloomberg during questioning.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) strongly opposes the proposed changes, claiming that the terrorism watch list is full of errors.
Andrew Arulanandam, NRA’s director of public affairs, pointed to the well-publicized 2004 incident in which the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was temporarily prevented from boarding a flight because his name was mistakenly on the list.
“There are innocent people who are not terrorists whose names are on the list,” Arulanandam said in an interview. “It is wrong to deny law-abiding people a constitutional right if they are innocent.”
But Bloomberg claimed that national-security concerns take precedence over any Second Amendment arguments.
“Our Founding Fathers did not write the Second Amendment to empower people who wanted to terrorize a free state,” Bloomberg said.
Sam Youngman contributed to this article.