Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s name on a U.S. government travel-watch list should have kept him from boarding an airplane without some scrutiny, yet he could purchase semi-automatic handguns with none.
Local and federal law enforcement officials either don’t know or aren’t yet saying how Tsarnaev and his brother, accused of bombing the Boston Marathon, obtained the guns they later used to kill a university police officer and critically injure a mass-transit officer. They didn’t apply for Massachusetts gun permits, as required by state law.
“I don’t know where they got the guns; that’s a good question,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told reporters in a briefing yesterday. He also confirmed Tsarnaev’s status on the Treasury Department’s Enforcement Communications System, a travel-screening database. Graham said he was briefed April 21 by the associate director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Where did they get the bombs? Apparently these folks had a small munitions factory,” said Graham.
The gun issue is re-emerging as Senate Democratic leaders survey the defeat of last week’s expanded background checks legislation, which would have imposed the requirement nationally on individuals purchasing weapons over the Internet and at gun shows.
An amendment to prevent persons flagged by authorities as potentially dangerous from purchasing guns was one of a number of measures that weren’t considered after the bipartisan proposal on background checks failed to get the necessary 60 votes to avoid a filibuster. The final tally was 54 to 46.
The amendment, sponsored by New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, would have blocked individuals whose names appear on a terror watch list -- which is separate from the broader travel-monitoring list -- from purchasing guns. Federal law now prohibits the FBI from attempting to block such a sale.
Current law also allows an individual to purchase as much as 50 pounds of explosive “black powder” and unlimited amounts of “smokeless powder” and “black powder substitute” without a background check. Lautenberg introduced legislation last week after the bombings to require background checks for any of the powders. Black powder was used in the Boston bombs.
“It is outrageous that anyone, even a known terrorist, can walk into a store in America and buy explosives without any questions asked,” Lautenberg said in an April 17 press release.
The Violence Policy Center in Washington issued a report today detailing how the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has long expressed concern over its limited ability to regulate black and smokeless powder.
In 2004, the ATF sent a letter to Federal Firearms Licensees who sell such merchandise to “Be Aware for America” since the powder is generally exempt from federal explosives laws.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the Boston horror on April 15 should remind lawmakers of the need to address gun laws.
“It transcends just domestic criminals and includes the new element we’ve been dealing with since 9/11 of international and domestic terrorism,” Pasco said in an interview.
Yet Pasco, who has devoted his career to observing the politics of gun control, said he remains skeptical.
“Nothing really surprises me anymore, but what really frustrates me at this point is the inability of the Congress to assert its will on anything,” he said. “They’ll go after pressure cookers before they go after guns.”
In Boston, police and federal law-enforcement officials are attempting to determine how Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother, Dzhokhar, obtained guns and several rounds of ammunition.
According to the Watertown, Massachusetts, police department, there were at least two handguns involved in the April 19 firefight with law enforcement in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed. The two also had two pipe bombs and two pressure cooker bombs filled with BBs and other materials, according to a Boston federal court filing released yesterday charging Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, with using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death.
David Linsky, a Democratic state representative in the Massachusetts House, this year filed legislation to strengthen the state’s gun restrictions.
“If they’re Massachusetts residents they would need a license to carry,” said Linsky. “Because we don’t have national firearm laws, it is very easy to go to another state and get a firearm. It is also illegal,” to possess that weapon without a permit in Massachusetts. “We don’t know where they got their handguns. What we do know is that most guns used in crimes in Massachusetts originate in other states.”
Firearm dealers, including those at gun shows in Massachusetts, are required to check that a purchaser is licensed to possess the weapon, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. All firearm owners in Massachusetts must be licensed through local or state police, and it’s also illegal to possess magazines of more than 10 rounds capacity unless manufactured before 1994.
The Tsarnaev brothers’ possession of the firearms puts a spotlight on a broader weakness in U.S. anti-terrorism laws.
In 2011, the Government Accountability Office issued a report finding that from February 2004 through December 2010, individuals on the terrorist watch list have passed background checks and purchased guns 1,321 times. On multiple occasions, terror suspects have even passed background checks and managed to buy explosives, the report found.
Adam Gadahn, an American-born al-Qaeda spokesman, is shown in a 2011 video played by MSNBC Television recommending that would-be terrorists exploit the U.S. laws and buy guns.
“America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check and most likely without having to show an identification card,” Gadahn says. “So what are you waiting for?”
There appears to be some bipartisan agreement on the need to shut down those sales. In 2007, the Bush administration asked Congress to give the FBI the power to block gun and explosives sales to terror suspects.
Advocates for tightening the law say they’ve been frustrated by Congress’s unwillingness to touch the issue amid opposition from the National Rifle Association, the nation’s biggest gun lobby that claims 4 million members.
In 2007, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre criticized the media’s coverage of the Lautenberg proposal in an article posted on its website.
“There is never a hint about deeply flawed, inaccurate lists, about the impossibility of ever getting off those lists or about the abuses by federal bureaucrats who manage the lists,” he wrote. “If someone is a legitimate threat to America, they shouldn’t be on the street in the first place,” he said.
“Right now federal law prohibits nine categories of dangerous persons from purchasing or possessing firearms. Remarkably, persons on the terror watch lists are not among these,” said King in an e-mail. His proposal would have provided individuals mistakenly on the list an appeals process.
‘Makes No Sense’
“After September 11th, it makes no sense that the federal government cannot stop gun sales to suspects on the terrorist watch list,” said King.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was placed on the travel-watch list -- which is separate from the terror-suspect roster -- after FBI officials received a tip from a Russian intelligence service that said he was a “follower of radical Islam” whose plans to travel to Russia raised fears that he intended to join “unspecified underground groups,” the FBI said on its website.
When the FBI began its 2011 review of Tsarnaev’s activities, his name was entered into the Treasury’s screening database, according to two law enforcement officials briefed on the matter. The addition to the screening system is a routine occurrence when the FBI reviews individuals, the officials said. The FBI, which interviewed Tsarnaev, said it found no evidence of terrorist activity at the time.
In 2012, Tsarnaev visited his parents in Russia’s North Caucasus region, a hotbed of Islamist separatist movements, a trip that may have been missed by the FBI and those monitoring the travel-watch list because his name was misspelled on airline records, said Graham. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano today told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the system did work; it “pinged when he was leaving” the U.S., despite the spelling discrepancy. By the time he returned, the investigation of the Russian tip was done.
Most of the terrorist-related attacks in the U.S. over the past two decades have involved the use of guns purchased in the U.S., said Arkadi Gerney, an expert on crime and guns at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
He cited Major Nidal Hasan’s shooting of 43 people at Fort Hood in 2009 in which 13 were killed and 30 were wounded. That same year Abdulhakim Muhammad allegedly attacked a military recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas, shooting one to death and wounding another. In 2007, six terror suspects were caught training with various firearms and plotting to attack Fort Dix. Hasan and Muhammad both were under investigation by the FBI for having links to terrorism.
Graham, in speaking to reporters, warned that smaller-scale terror attacks such as the Boston bombing are part of the nation’s future. “There are more days like this coming,” he said. “The new way of hitting America is to do it inside.”
Even so, Graham, who voted against last week’s gun legislative package, said he is opposed to limits on the gun ownership rights of individuals on the terror watch list out of concern about mistaken identity.
“If you’re on the no-fly list you ought to be able to get yourself off before you lose your Second Amendment rights,” he said.
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