After 9/11, political leaders from both parties came together and resolved to protect the American people. 

When they enhanced law enforcement surveillance, crippled terrorist finance networks, and launched the Department of Homeland Security, Congress fortunately did not take the view that they would only pass laws that would have prevented what happened on 9/11. Just dead-bolting the cockpit door wasn’t going to cut it. Their task was to establish a new national priority to keep Americans safe – and respond aggressively to familiar and emerging threats alike.
After the terror attack in San Bernardino, we’re at another point when the world feels increasingly dangerous and threatening. Only now, that steely resolve we saw after 9/11 seems to have gone missing from Capitol Hill – replaced by the extremism of the gun lobby. 

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The world was never so murky for George W. Bush. That’s why his administration first proposed legislation that would close a glaring loophole in our gun laws – the so-called “terror gap” – and prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns.  

But whenever the talk turns to guns, the NRA’s allies in Congress change the conversation. Usually after a mass shooting, they object to any gun legislation and tell us that mental health is the real issue. Even though mental illness is no more prevalent in the U.S. than in Canada, for instance, while our rates of gun violence differ markedly. 

This time, the NRA’s favorite lawmakers voted against a Senate proposal to close the terror gap. Of course, you can imagine how letting terrorists buy guns might go over with voters back home. So to give themselves political cover, gun lobby senators – led by Sen. John CornynJohn CornynLawmakers already planning more coronavirus stimulus after T package Cuban says he'd spank daughter if she was partying during coronavirus pandemic Twitter comes under fire over Chinese disinformation on coronavirus MORE (R-Texas) – introduced their own terror gap measure. It, too, was defeated. 

The difference, though, was that the Cornyn alternative was a sham. 

Cornyn’s proposal would require the Department of Justice to prove to a judge that a suspected terrorist has already committed or will actually commit an act of terrorism – a standard so high that it’s practically meaningless. And DOJ would have only 72 hours to do the nearly impossible. Otherwise, a potentially dangerous gun sale could proceed. 

In other words, Cornyn’s proposal wasn’t serious. Talk to the prosecutors who would have to implement it, and they’ll tell you. It wouldn’t stop suspected terrorists from buying guns. 

Imagine if we’d played these kinds of games after 9/11. After we’d been attacked? And when we were vulnerable to more attacks? The public wouldn’t have allowed it.

The gaps in our gun laws create a clear and present danger. Jihadists already know about them. An Al Qaeda spokesman has encouraged followers in the West to go to American gun shows and buy guns “without a background check.” 

“What are you waiting for?” he asks in a video widely circulated online.

This isn’t theoretical. Over the past decade, people on federal terrorist watch lists have passed gun-sale background checks more than 2,000 times. The 2009 Fort Hood shooter passed a background check, bought a gun, and shot 45 people – even as the FBI was investigating him for links to terrorism. We’ve decided that suspected terrorists shouldn’t board planes. But to this day, it’s perfectly legal for them to buy guns and build arsenals. 

So why wouldn’t we close the terror gap? Opponents cite two concerns – the first being that the terror watch lists are far from perfect. However, the lists now are narrowly tailored and a vast improvement on what we had a decade ago. If there are issues with the lists, we should fix them. But since when, after 9/11, do we value a suspected terrorist’s ability to get a gun over our safety?

Opponents also say we need to protect due process rights. But the proposal first introduced by the Bush administration and rejected by the Senate last week includes robust due process protections – including the ability to appeal directly to federal court, where the government must show it made the right call in denying a gun sale.  

After 9/11, our leaders pledged the government’s full resources – economic, military, intelligence, law enforcement – in protecting us from terror. Now, after San Bernardino, it’s past time to recognize the serious potential for more terrorists to exploit one of our most glaring weaknesses.  

Shoring up that weakness is an idea that has bipartisan support in Congress. The Obama administration and presidential candidates from both parties support it, too.

We can have both freedom and safety. As we’ve done for decades already, we can balance a respect for the Constitution with the reasonable regulation of gun sales. Without violating anyone’s rights, we can better defend our security – and block suspected terrorists from buying guns. 

Feinblatt is the president of Everytown for Gun Safety.