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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Not Just the No-Fly List

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton criticized Republicans for rejecting a Democratic amendment that would have “block[ed] suspected terrorists from buying guns who are on the no-fly list.” But she misrepresented the measure, which would have applied to a much broader group than the no-fly list.

Clinton made her remarks on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on June 13, the day after a mass shooting in Orlando, in talking about gun control measures that could prevent dangerous individuals from getting firearms.

Clinton, June 13 (5:14 mark): And I still am just totally bewildered by the Republican Congress’ refusal to block suspected terrorists from buying guns who are on the no-fly list.

The Senate amendment in question, proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, would have applied to a much larger group than the no-fly list. As we reported in December, Feinstein’s office told us the measure, which would have allowed the attorney general to block gun sales to individuals on these lists, would have included a few terrorist databases, and the no-fly list is a subset of one of them.

The largest of the databases is the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, which included 1.1 million people as of December 2013. The second is the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database, which is referred to simply as the Terrorist Watchlist, and contained about 800,000 names, Christopher M. Piehota, the Terrorist Screening Center director, said in congressional testimony on Sept. 18, 2014. The no-fly list is a part of that database. It contains about 64,000 names, according to Piehota’s testimony.

So, while Clinton said the measure applied to suspected terrorists on the no-fly list, that’s only 64,000 names. It actually would have applied to well over 1 million people who are on government watch lists. Republicans defeated the amendment in early December.

Republicans also put forth an alternative aimed at protecting those who wrongly find themselves on these terrorist watch lists — it would have delayed a gun sale and required a court ruling to actually block the sale — and it also included measures to defund cities that don’t help enforce federal immigration law. That measure also failed. Both were amendments to a Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Feinstein’s proposal was introduced as separate legislation in February 2015, and in the House by Republican Rep. Peter King. Both versions were referred to committee, and no action has been taken since.

The Feinstein amendment wouldn’t have blocked everyone on the watch lists automatically, and Clinton made that clear in a separate June 13 interview on NBC’s “Today” show (6:14 mark), saying, the measure “allows the attorney general and FBI to prevent a suspected terrorist from [buying guns]. It would happen on a case by case basis.”

The measure would have allowed the attorney general to use the databases we described to deny gun sales to a suspected or known terrorist, if there is “a reasonable belief that the applicant may use a firearm in connection with terrorism,” according to the legislation.

In a speech in Cleveland on June 13, Clinton again talked about gun control measures that could be implemented, saying, “we should all be able to agree on a few essential things.” Among them: “If the FBI is watching you for a suspected terrorist link, you shouldn’t be able to just go buy a gun with no questions asked.”

We’d note that in the Orlando case, however, the shooter, Omar Mateen, bought his guns after he was no longer on a terrorist watch list. FBI Director James B. Comey has said that Mateen was on the FBI’s Terrorist Watchlist in 2013 and 2014 when the FBI was investigating him, first due to co-workers raising concerns about Mateen’s incendiary language about terrorism and then due to him having “casually” known a suicide bomber who attended the same mosque in Florida. The FBI didn’t find evidence to arrest Mateen, Comey told reporters, and the investigations were closed, which removes suspects from the watch list, the New York Times reported.

Mateen purchased the guns used in the Orlando shooting in June.

But the Department of Justice is considering implementing some system that would alert counterterrorism officials if someone who had previously been on a watch list tries to buy a gun, the Times said.

New York Times, June 13: Sally Q. Yates, the deputy attorney general, also told reporters at the news conference that the Justice Department might look to adopt new procedures that would alert counterterrorism investigators if someone who had been under investigation and on a terror watchlist tried to buy a gun.

In her Cleveland speech, Clinton also mentioned the no-fly list: “And yes, if you’re too dangerous to get on a plane, you are too dangerous to buy a gun in America.”

New legislation could be proposed to more narrowly focus on the no-fly list, but, again, the Democratic measure that was defeated last year would have applied to a much larger number of individuals.